Visual Arts

Mama and Dadaism

For the past 16 years, the Arizona Museum for Youth in Mesa has thrived on the fact that children would rather "just do it" than listen to or watch grown-ups tell or show them how to do it. The museum averages about three major exhibits a year, and its hands-on approach to learning has covered topics as varied as transportation, bears, American farms, fiber, food in art, patterns, kites and the cultural fare of China, Japan and Mexico. "The notion behind all of the shows," says Barbara Meyerson, the museum's founding director, "is that since art is everywhere, there's virtually no limit to the kinds of concepts, themes or cultural issues we can feature."

Now comes "Elementary, My Dear: An Investigation of Basic Art Elements." Unlike most of the museum's previous shows, which have been geared to elementary school children, this one is aimed at the preschool crowd--the same age group the museum aims to snag with a new wing, planned to be built in the next few years.

"We have talked long and hard about the needs of children below the age of 5," says Meyerson. "So, we had a discussion one day about what an early-childhood area would be like and how it would treat basic art issues such as color, shape, line and texture."

Organized by the museum's curator, Rebecca Akins, "Elementary, My Dear" is a series of detective games giving young sleuths the chance to discern the varied roles those basic elements play in the development of art. As part of the games, it features eight artists whose works are said to exemplify the four elements.

Akins says the artists, most of whom have previously done work for the museum, were selected because their work is accessible to the museum's broad audience.

"We also tried to pair a two-dimensional artist with a three-dimensional artist in each of the categories," says Meyerson. So, works by Anne Coe and Farraday Sredl represent color; those by James Davis and Joy McGrew, line. Texture is the domain of Suzanne Klotz and Patty Haberman. And shape is given over to Ron Gasowski and Linda Mundwiler.

These are arbitrary groupings, at best. The ingredients of art, like those of cooking, rarely stand alone in the final flavor of a work. In fact, the great miracle of art is in its power to make you forget the parts of the whole. But this exhibit is more about the process than the final products of art and visual thinking. It is also about the role curiosity--often the first victim of schools' efforts to control overly large classes--plays in moving and inspiring young minds, hands and eyes.

In that sense, this show is not just for kids. It is for anyone interested in seeing firsthand what excites children to learn. Unlike the sit-on-your-hands-and-do-as-I-say educational approach being advocated by growing legions of parents, schools and politicos hoping to bring order and higher test scores to the classroom, this show--like the museum's other exhibits--is hands-on, engaging and, to borrow a popular term, interactive. Its foundation is the belief that curiosity is a natural ally of learning and a key to effective problem solving.

For example, there are areas where youngsters can use a coded alphabet to spell their names and other messages, assemble slices of color into a whole pie, or make rubbings to explore the links between texture, pattern and line.

Disciplinarians may grumble that it killed the cat and, if left unchecked, will eventually do in the kids. But as Einstein liked to remind people, and many reputable others have since pointed out, curiosity is an essential tool in developing original thoughts and inventions. It moves the mind to wonder, "What if?" then leads it to say, "Why don't we find out?"

Industry knows the value of curiosity in developing new products and markets. That's why the Museum for Youth and the Arizona Science Center, which is about to open its new museum in Phoenix, have enjoyed such strong corporate support through the years. And businesses such as The Nature Company and Imaginarium have succeeded by pitching their products to the widespread interest in what educators characterize as "discovery-based learning."

Still, for rigidly bureaucratic schools that have to contend with large, potentially unruly classes, a little curiosity can be a terrifying thing. "With 30 to 35 children in the classroom," says Meyerson, "there's this unavoidable need for some sort of order. Curiosity defies that. It is not neat, predictable or controllable. It could easily go off in 35 different directions at any given time. That's very hard for school settings to handle. Yet when you think back to the teachers in your life who made a difference, the one thing they had in common was they gave you space to explore your curiosity, to explore your imagination, to discover something about yourself and your interests."

Watching children negotiate the various exhibit areas of "Elementary, My Dear," it's evident that instead of driving the mind willy-nilly, curiosity can just as easily be a force for focused, disciplined inquiry.

"What we've found, and I'm sure all good teachers know this," says Meyerson, "is that if you engage children's curiosity, you engage their attention. They become involved and happy about what they're doing. And they pursue it with such diligence that you don't have to worry about discipline. It simply ceases to be an issue."

That doesn't mean that rules don't matter. In fact, the museum has two basic rules writ large throughout the show: "Only Look," for works too delicate to touch, and "Please Touch," for hands-on exhibits.

"Obviously, if you have a bronze sculpture, you can't encourage people to touch it because that would destroy the finish," says Meyerson. "Yet when you explain to children what happens when everyone touches the bronze, they have tremendous respect for it. In fact, our experience is that the children are the ones who have to remind their parent, who is about to reach over the barrier, 'Mom, we can only look at that.'"

The question is whether the average state legislator would know what to do in the face of such educational temptation.

"Elementary, My Dear: An Investigation of Basic Art Elements" continues through Friday, May 23, at Arizona Museum for Youth, 35 North Robson in Mesa. For more details, see Kid Stuff listing in Thrills.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow