No Accidental Tourist : For This Gardena High Art Teacher, Her Classroom Is the World

Times Staff Writer

As Phila McDaniel walked breathlessly from her classroom to the art gallery at Gardena High School the other day, she was, as usual, preparing for a trip.

A crumpled note pinned to her gray-and-black-striped vest reminded her of things to do, headed by the admonition: “Don’t forget briefcase.” With her overloaded schedule, it’s easy to see the need for reminders.

McDaniel, 57, is an art instructor, intrepid world traveler, tour leader, artist, photographer, art gallery curator, art restorer. She is seeking air time for a television documentary she directed on her travels in China. She has amassed a highly regarded collection of costumes worn by some of China’s ethnic minorities.


Finalist for Award

Somehow, McDaniel also finds time to study for her doctorate and continue work on two books she is writing. And for the second consecutive year, McDaniel is one of 10 finalists for the annual Bravo Awards for excellence in teaching the arts.

Like the eye of a storm, the mild-mannered McDaniel remains unfazed amid the flurried pace of her life. “I love the drama and the adventure,” McDaniel said. “I love art, and I just like to go places and to see what I can find out from many different standpoints.”

An art teacher for 33 years, McDaniel has taught at Gardena High since 1972. She is curator of the school’s extensive collection of California art, which consists of 78 paintings donated to the school since 1919 by Gardena High alumni.

For the last 28 years she has combined teaching with traveling. She instructs Gardena students in painting and art history during the school year and, for the last 10 summers, has led tours into remote sections of China. Before China opened its doors to Western tourists in 1979, she traveled extensively in Japan, Greece, India and Nepal. Since then, she has been to China 17 times.

Wherever McDaniel goes, interesting things seem to happen.

“I got into a little altercation with a Tibetan warrior last summer, and I’m still suffering from the damage he did to my arm,” the scholarly looking McDaniel said. The warrior was of the fierce Khampa tribe, she said.

As she recalls it, the fracas began when a Tibetan tour guide recommended that participants refrain from buying the warrior’s goods in the Xigatse Bazaar, an outdoor folk market near Mt. Everest, because the items were too expensive.

“The warrior got angry and he tried to carry our guide away,” McDaniel said. “Then I tried to rescue the guide. That’s when I got hit by the warrior. He tore the tendons in my arm and separated the muscle, so my arm is very weak now.”

On Wednesday, McDaniel was preparing for a presumably safer trip to the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, where a major exhibition of her collection of ethnic costumes and jewelry, along with her photographs of the Chinese residents who made them, is opening today and continuing through June.

Remarkable Collection

Museum Director Kit Freudenberg said McDaniel’s collection is remarkable because of the completeness of the costumes. Few travelers to China see such costumes, she said, and it is possible that the Chinese will stop making traditional outfits as the country becomes more Westernized.

“People who travel to China usually do not go farther than Beijing or the Stone Forest,” Freudenberg said. “In 10 years, I’m willing to bet you will not be able to find people in China making these kinds of traditional costumes. It’s important that it be collected and examined.”

McDaniel is a member of the China Exploration and Research Society, founded by a National Geographic Society researcher last year and dedicated to preserving the history and culture of China.

Her research specialty is documenting the customs of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups. So far, she has collected material from 40 of the groups, including members of the Miao, Dong, Tibetan and Manchurian minorities. Like the costumes, ethnic customs may be about to vanish.

‘An Urgent Thing’

“We’re trying to document things before they disappear,” McDaniel said. “It’s an urgent thing, because once these people get Western civilization, once they get television, once they know what’s out there in the rest of the world, they’re going to change. . . . So we have to document things now while they still exist in their pure state.”

McDaniel speaks some Chinese. “Enough to get out of trouble when I’m lost,” she said.

“I have very good relations with the Chinese tourist bureaus. They know I’m a serious researcher and not just frivolous. I take people on my tours who like what I like--art, and focusing on the unique qualities of China’s ethnic minorities.”

In 1986, McDaniel traced the path of Mao Tse-tung’s Long March across China in 1934, traveling 900 miles by bus along the dusty roads crossing the Aba grasslands. The seven-day feat was celebrated by the governors of the Sichuan and Ganshu provinces, each of whom greeted her tour group with banquets and ceremonial white scarfs called khagatas that were draped around their necks.

Tour Bus Broke Down

“I don’t know how she does it,” Freudenberg said. “She was one of the first people back in after China opened up, and she is frequently one of the first Westerners to go into many regions. She has made friends and acquaintances of governors and business managers. Many times her (tour) bus goes where there isn’t even a road.”

Traveling where there was no road and no good gasoline once presented a problem when a tour bus broke down in the Yunan grasslands “hundreds of miles from civilization,” McDaniel said.

“I had a bottle of alcohol in my suitcase and I poured it in the carburetor,” McDaniel said. “We limped along until we found some Tibetans who had a wrench so we could take off the gas tank and clean it. Then I strained the gasoline through my T-shirt so we could get the water and dirt out. It was because I knew a little bit about chemistry and mechanics that I knew what to do.”

McDaniel picked up some of her knowledge of chemistry from her husband, Calvin, a retired Harbor College chemistry professor who is also a tour director, and from her father, a mechanic and inventor.

The couple, who live in Rancho Palos Verdes, have three adult children, all of whom have traveled to China with their mother. Calvin McDaniel, however, said he has never been to China. He specializes in tours to the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, India and Burma.

An Only Child

A Los Angeles native and an only child, McDaniel said her love of travel and teaching came in great part from her mother, an elementary school teacher who bought her daughter lavish art and travel books. As an undergraduate, McDaniel studied fine arts at Pepperdine University before receiving a master’s degree in Oriental art history from Cal State Long Beach.

McDaniel is one of 97 people nominated this year for the seventh annual Bravo awards. Two winners will be announced on March 6 at a ceremony at the Los Angeles County Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she said. The awards, coordinated by the Music Center’s education division and sponsored by the Jeffrey Melamed Memorial Fund, are given to teachers in the Los Angeles area.

Helene Trudeau, program administrator of the education division, said McDaniel is remarkable as a teacher because of her success in inspiring Gardena students in arts careers while doubling as curator of the school’s art collection.

“It’s very exceptional to run a museum in a high school, and the community is proud of it,” Trudeau said. “McDaniel is also helping her students in practical terms, and is able to help them get the portfolios organized. Many of her past students have been very successful in the arts. It’s remarkable that she is able to do all the activities that she does.”

‘A World of Knowledge’

Gardena High Principal Tamotsu Ikeda agrees. “Because of her travels, she brings to our kids a world of knowledge which other art teachers would find difficult to give to youngsters.”

On her return from Seattle, McDaniel’s whirlwind schedule will continue. Her current exhibit at the high school’s art gallery is in celebration of the Chinese New Year, which begins Feb. 6. She is organizing a mural to be painted by beginning art students in honor of Black History Month, also in February.

Some of McDaniel’s former students have returned to exhibit their work in the school’s gallery.

“My greatest thrill,” McDaniel said, “has been to see some of the result of my philosophy of teaching . . . to let children know the joy of creating art.”