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A Close-Up Look At People Who Matter : Artful Idea Helps Retiree Help Others

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Oh. Hi Mrs. Art.”

At Arminta Street Elementary School in North Hollywood, that’s how Harriet Blye is often greeted.

Blye, who is retired from teaching after 26 years, is the one who takes the schoolchildren into the world of the masters--Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock--two days a week.

“This is like a dream come true for me,” Blye said of her opportunity to combine her love for children with her love of art. “It’s very interesting to see second-graders discussing Picasso and Cubism.”

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Her dream came true when Marcia Cholodenko, Arminta’s principal, learned that Blye had retired from Dixie Canyon Avenue Elementary School.

“What are you going to be doing for the rest of your life?” Cholodenko asked Blye.

Cholodenko created a limited contract position at Arminta so that Blye could provide a unique art program she had begun at the largely upper- and middle-class Dixie Canyon school at the mostly Spanish-speaking, lower-income Arminta.

“Nine-tenths of these kids would probably never get exposed to this,” said Cholodenko.

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Since Blye started at Arminta in September, she has already had a big impact on the school, the principal said.

Kindergarten classes are decorated with paper cutouts representing the works of Kandinsky, the Russian painter considered the father of abstract art. Works matching the style of Cezanne decorate the nurse’s office.

This week, Blye was teaching fifth- and sixth-graders the drip painting technique of abstract Expressionist Pollock.

“Everybody in the school is going to be so jealous,” said Blye, as she started to show the class how to make tubes of paper that will be painted and dripped on in the style of Pollock. She started the class by quizzing the students on the life of Van Gogh, a subject she had covered in her last session with them.

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“I do not throw the paint the way Jackson Pollock did,” Blye said. “I just do the dribble like he did with the coffee cans.”

Teachers and students alike said they look forward to a lesson from Blye, who, although not an artist, is an art enthusiast. “A day without art is a day not worth living,” Blye said.

“Actually, she’s teaching me as well,” said Tami Schwartz, who teaches fifth and sixth grades.

The first project Blye usually gives a class involves drawing a picture of flowers in a vase, but with the picture upside down so that students focus more on the lines and shapes than on the actual picture.

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“I told myself I couldn’t do it,” said Franco Georgianna, 11. But he and other students have discovered a confidence in themselves because of Blye.

“We’ve learned a lot of things about artists and maybe when we grow up we can be an artist too,” said a smiling Marcos Pacheco, also 11.

The excitement about art has spilled over into other subjects, Schwartz said. The children’s imagination in writing assignments has grown dramatically, she said.

“I’ve seen them more focused,” said Karla Cuadra, a third and fourth grade teacher. “They take more pride in the things they do.”

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To kindergarten teachers, Blye seems a miracle worker.

“It was pretty amazing,” said kindergarten teacher Roberta Barabash. “They were able to sit for her for a full hour on the rug giving her their full attention.”

The best Barabash can manage is about 20 minutes, she said.

In the fifth- and sixth-grade class, the students patiently waited for the art project to begin, absorbing the information that Blye gave them, sitting up straight if Blye suggested it, obviously eager to please.

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Blye said her goal is to unlock the talent and appreciation for art within all the students. “The lesson is there is an artist inside each of us.”

Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338.


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