Letter Rip

Have you ever seen a child wandering through a gallery stop short in front of a work of art and exclaim, "Whoa! Cool!"? If you haven't, then you have never been to Mesa's Arizona Museum for Youth. On June 16, the nationally recognized kids' museum in downtown Mesa opened its latest exhibit, "A to Z: Art by the Letter."

The title isn't figurative. This exhibit gives you a little taste of just about every form and medium that studio art can take. A is for acrylics, B is for book arts, C is for ceramics and E is for everything else under the sun. Now, if your kid is anything like mine and can't go anywhere without getting into something, have no fear. "A to Z" is packed with engaging hands-on activities and craft projects based on the works of artists participating in the show. Your young master can hunker down quietly and sketch a still life of household appliances like the works of local artist Cynthia Peterson, or construct and decorate paper pyramids based on the clever mixed-media sculptures of Greg Patrenos. The kid can even sign his name in Egyptian hieroglyphs as a finishing touch.

Need something a little more immediate? How about building a Neverland-like tree house in the style of the natural wood constructs of Prescott artist Roger Assay, then populating it with little wooden woodland creatures? There is plenty of stimulation for the most eager hands and minds.

What continues to keep this East Valley museum on the national map is its dedication to quality and willingness to challenge its young audience. It never shies away from artwork that provokes while it entertains, and this exhibition is no exception. You will experience emotions running from A to Z with works of art that are beautiful or whimsical (my personal favorite is a found-object sculpture by Tempe artist Dan Mayer about baseball superstitions) or enlightening, as well as a couple that are downright disturbing. Imagine having a thoughtful discussion with your 7-year-old about the nature of art. Heck, imagine it with your 17-year-old. That's what the Arizona Museum for Youth is all about.

After "A to Z: Art by the Letter" is over, the Museum for Youth will be closing its doors for the last phase of an extensive expansion project. The exhibit is officially set to run through Friday, September 8, but the actual closing date will depend on when the construction gets rolling. The exhibit could end up running as late as November. The expansion is going to be a very big project; according to exhibits designer Larry Warner, "Every single inch of this building is being changed." If all goes well, the Arizona Museum for Youth will reopen bigger and better than ever sometime in the fall of 2001. While it's closed, look for special off-site exhibits and workshops around town to keep you and your young artists busy.

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James Ward