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NEVER TOO YOUNG : The Getty Center Brings Art to the Elementary Schools--and the Youngsters Become Connoisseurs

November 03, 1985|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer

On a gray day in Montebello, aesthetic sparks ignite Rebecca Orona's fourth-grade bungalow. Like explorers surveying a topographical map, students examine the face of an expressionless woman projected on a wall of Room 19 at Washington School and describe her eyelids, nose and mouth. When the image changes, the students see the same woman, drastically changed. Her eyebrows are knit and her mouth has taken a dive. After mimicking her attitude by pulling their own faces into dramatic frowns, the children agree: This is not a happy face.

Lights snap on and the youngsters go to work drawing parts of expressive faces to be pasted on cubes and later assembled in interchangeable building-block faces. After assessing their own artwork, the children watch a filmstrip on German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck and hear that his melancholy bronze figures reflect his depression about World War I. So ends a session on the shape of human emotion.

"Bring me a Van Gogh, a Homer and a Renoir," Orona suddenly instructs a boy in her class. Reacting as though these are his best friends' names, he quickly extracts reproductions of the artists' paintings from a large bin of prints. "Who painted this picture?" Orona asks, elevating Vincent Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait." Several hands shoot up. Having dispensed with artist identification, the youngsters analyze the painting's swirling strokes, intense color and, again, the sadness of a face.

The class moves on to Winslow Homer's "Snap the Whip," noting the artist's penchant for dramatic movement, and then to a sunny French Impressionist landscape by Pierre Auguste Renoir. Wildly waving his hand until he's called upon, Joseph Ortega offers an unforgettable interpretation of Renoir's technique: "It looks like he got real fuzzy teddy bears, cut off their tails and pasted them on the painting."

"Oh, you do love the Impressionists," Orona coos.

This is Art AG (After Getty) in Los Angeles County elementary schools, and to this visiting art critic, it seems too good to be true. Teachers and administrators enthusiastically concur, insisting that there's no returning art education to its former mindless state. Art BG, to hear them tell it, consisted of artsy-craftsy busywork and predictable holiday projects--drawing turkeys for Thanksgiving and bunnies for Easter.

The Getty Center for Education in the Arts, one of seven operating activities of the extraordinarily wealthy J. Paul Getty Trust, is responsible for this flowering. Calling for reforms in the ways children learn about art, the center introduced its ideas for "more rigorous and substantive art education" in seven L.A. County school districts four years ago.

Participating districts now number 21, and although center administrators are guarded about projecting the program's ultimate scope, procedures are in place to ensure that the concept of treating art seriously will spread. Veterans of the program teach their colleagues. New and returning participants receive intensive instruction at summer institutes. And the center, administered by Lani Lattin Duke, establishes five-year commitments with participating districts to see them through the transition from art as entertainment to art as a solid discipline.

The philosophy of the new program is to provide "discipline-based" art education. Teachers use four components--aesthetics, history, criticism and production--in their lessons. The Getty recommends a curriculum that includes set lesson plans. Getty people stress that the program is a cooperative venture, still in its formative stages and subject to assessment.

Though the instruction takes up only about an hour a week, art is viewed as a valuable subject--for its own sake and because it can enhance other pursuits. Educators repeatedly credit this structured approach to art with having expanded students' vocabularies and increased their ability to observe and describe in detail. Silvia Barger, a first-grade teacher at Gonsalves School in Cerritos, was astonished to hear one of her students proudly announce: "There is symmetry at my house," and proceed to describe a configuration of light switches on one of the walls in her home.

"The changes are very observable," says Karin Newlin, Gonsalves principal. "The students draw better. They talk about concepts. They are three to five years ahead of average kids."

"Noticing" things draws verbal rewards from Barger, whose first-graders apply their observation skills to a filmstrip of water animals and a reproduction of Paul Klee's painting "Sinbad the Sailor," moving from photographic portrayals of nature to abstract art with apparent ease. One girl notes that a sweeping ribbon of light in Klee's canvas resembles the shape of clay walruses the students have made in an earlier class; her observation fits right in with a program that has 6- and 7-year-olds talking about the differences between realism and fantasy in art.

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