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ART/Allan Jalon : Art Workshop Allows Children to Romp in Mind’s Playground

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A refrain among conservative debunkers of modern art has long been “my kid could paint that!”

The people at Newport Harbor Art Museum are putting a positive spin on the phrase, turning inside out its implied mockery--not just of the inspirational value in modern art but also of the artistic impulses of children. Every summer, the museum’s Childrens’ Art Workshop offers Orange County youngsters ages 6 to 9 a chance to find their own imaginative potential through encounters with the work of artists the museum has put on exhibit.

For this summer’s four sessions, the children toured a show called “The Figurative Fifties” of paintings by New York artists, then sat down in a large room near the gallery to do their own art.

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“The Figurative Fifties” features work by artists who continued to work with the human figure despite the broad shift among many of their colleagues toward abstraction. In many cases, even where mature techniques and perspectives shine through, there is a playful, improvisatory aspect to the pieces that a child might easily emulate.

But 9 1/2-year-old Nicole Dubuc’s face was a picture of intense concentration as she drew a picture of a fellow student, who was posing in front of the class. “You have to make it up from your mind. That’s what the best artists do,” she explained as she gave the boy’s body a cartoonish, Art Deco-like blend of curves and angles.

A sense of freedom seemed to be the childrens’ greatest pleasure in making art. “I like art because nothing’s impossible,” Nicole said. “You (can) do whatever you want to,” added Michael Thurman, a 6-year-old from Costa Mesa. “I like doing the designs and stuff,” he said, showing off a colorful painting he had titled: “A Robot, the Sun and a Cloud.”

This summer’s workshop was led by D.J. Gray, a free-lance art educator from Seal Beach who also works at the Laguna Unified School District, partly as a liaison between the district and Laguna Art Museum. Her experiences have convinced her that museums must play an increasing role in art education as budget constraints squeeze art classes out of school curricula.

“There should be an art curriculum from kindergarten through the 12th grade, but instead there has been less and less of it,” Gray said. “And you can see how they like it.”

Indeed. Michael D’Agostino, 8, of Costa Mesa seemed to get special delight from modeling while the other students drew him--though he confessed, “it’s hard to keep your arm out.” The room filled with the faint scratching sounds of many pencils on paper.

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Would he be disappointed if the likenesses of him were not exact? “It’s not supposed to look like me,” he shot back, clearly suspicious that his interrogator had taken an over-literal view of the activity. “It’s supposed to look like the shape of me, like the feelings people have about looking at the shape.

“Not the details.”

Marget Vogele, 5, was complying with that standard, and was pleased with the results. Her picture, she felt, “is the best one I’ve done.” She sounded a bit surprised. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Wilson Owens, a 6-year-old from Newport Beach, had departed from the figure for a more self-assertive declaration: His own name painted in large, brightly colorful letters.

Parents seemed to see the workshop as a sort of oasis of art consciousness for their children. “When I grew up, we had so much more of it in school,” recalled Paula Vogele, mother to Marget and Britta, a twin sister also in the workshop. “Creativity is something I want my children to experience. I really think it’s essential.”

Gail D’Agostino, mother to Michael, agreed. “I used to teach art for eight years and I discovered that there are many children who simply don’t learn orally, who learn visually. They do problem-solving, but through images.

“I taught art in junior high school,” she said, “and half the students in my classes were there because they really wanted to be, a quarter of the kids were really failures, kids who weren’t paying any attention--and a quarter were kids for whom art was a real salvation. They weren’t good at other things. You heard other teachers talking about them and complaining, but the physical act of making art brought out something special in them.”

Karin Caulter, 8, of Huntington Beach, may have been one of those children who discover a window to self-expression through art. She was extremely shy when interviewed. Yet she had filled a piece of drawing paper with uninhibited strokes of color, in a design that showed an openness to the sheer fun of moving paint across an empty space.

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If the picture were hung in a show of abstract art, even a few experts may have raised their eyebrows and exclaimed: “A kid painted that?”

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