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Letters From The Editor: Introducing a child to fine art at OCMA

I spent a recent Sunday with my daughter exploring the Richard Diebenkorn show at the Orange County Museum of Art.

“Amazing,” she proclaimed, standing in front of one of the many untitled abstracts.

It was.

More amazing to me were my kindergartner’s reactions to “The Ocean Park Series,” which runs through May 27. I wasn’t sure if the mid-century abstracts would just go over her head (or mine, for that matter), but she loved them.

My drawing-obsessed daughter, who secretly scribbles with a flashlight under the covers in bed, had never been to a bona fide art museum. I found OCMA, which is on the outer edge of Newport Center, as well as the current exhibition, an affordable and age-appropriate place to introduce a young child to fine art.

The mid-century series focuses on the artist’s time in the Ocean Park district of Santa Monica, and the canvases’ soft color fields separated by hard lines are not only enveloping for adults, but are easily relatable for children, whose scribbles are abstract art in their own right, even if not by design.

In my limited art history vocabulary, which is informed by nothing more than a few college classes and multiple museum visits, I explained to my daughter why some artists strayed from figurative painting and toward Abstract Expressionism. I enjoyed finding words she could understand for why some images were painted from objects seen in real life while others represented light, emotions and atmosphere.

My daughter found these ideas entertaining, given that at her age she works to make her drawings realistic. She is proud that her images look increasingly like her favorite subjects — mommy and daddy (I prefer her earlier, um, surreal period, when I had more hair).

At the OCMA show, she took interest in “Ocean Park No. 11,” which she interpreted, I think correctly, as a beach bordered by the ocean. I too saw the same thing and felt swept into the painting’s vast sand, but strangely not its tiny sea.

There is also a representational piece showing the rooftop view from the artist’s studio, which took me back to my own childhood in Santa Monica, an era I remember more in feelings of warmth than I do in specific images. My experience viewing Diebenkorn took me back to that time and place in my life more so than a historic photograph of the Santa Monica Pier would.

The exhibition reminded me that memory is not only a recording of events but of emotions, “The Ocean Park Series” playing to the latter in my case.

I associate the old Southern California more with an amber glow, a mix of smog and sunlight, the ambience and emotion found in Diebenkorn’s canvases.

And the exhibit’s intersection of Santa Monica and Newport Beach, two places dear to me, meet in the show in ways I did not expect. These two coastal communities that I’ve always associated as being quite different connected me both to my past and present in a cohesive way.

The show also got me thinking about whether my daughter would grow up appreciating art. I won’t force it, but I hope she does, as objects made by hand seem increasingly precious in this pixilated age.

And maybe she will remember her first trip to an art museum as a special day with her dad. Whether she does or not, I will, always.

JOHN CANALIS is the editor of Times Community News South. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and