At first glance, the picture just shows a body with a bunch of sticks protruding from it. But then you see the torso bending with movement, the rueful smile, the eyes dancing with laughter.
The crayon drawing, done by Sara Hall of Menlo Park last summer when she was 4 years old, is commanding attention these days at the Laguna Art Museum, not far from the venerable works of Mary Cassatt and Maurice Prendergast. It is part of the museum's current children's corner exhibit--13 works plucked last summer from the children's booth at the Sawdust Festival, an annual artists' show in Laguna Beach.
What made Sara's picture more museum-worthy than the scribbles of other preschoolers?
"The child observed a swinging movement of the body and captured it," answers the woman who did the choosing, Dinah McClintock, the Laguna Art Museum's curator of education. "It has a lot of feeling and is very sophisticated for a 4-year-old."
McClintock says that it is hard to make judgments when it comes to children's art, for several reasons. "First of all, anything that a child does that's creative is art. One piece is really never better than another."
And yet some of the children find their work hanging in the children's corner, and others do not.
"What aren't good examples are what happens when a teacher says 'draw a horse,' and they copy a horse," McClintock said. "I look for art that will show the artist is really trying something exciting and new, not just copying. Like when a child sees something differently or makes an advance in some way."
One piece that fit the bill was a painted abstract butterfly by Kristen Wilkins of Glendora. "It looks so beautiful," McClintock said, "and it's a real original idea." Another selection came from Healy Henderson of Dana Point, who created an acrylic landscape with a horse. McClintock feels that it shows a variety of different techniques, including intricate brushwork and shading.
McClintock adds, though, that technique is not necessarily important. "A child of 10 doesn't have to understand perspective to make a good drawing," she said. "He just has to show emotion."
Aside from creative concerns, McClintock deals with practical issues. The museum's space restrictions, the interplay of artwork, and the variety of materials all play important roles when composing a show.
"It has to look like a museum exhibit," McClintock said. "Some people feel like if it's kids' art, just hang it all up on a wall. But we (at the museum) feel they should all be framed and arranged well. So I was looking for things that would work together."
Sheila Lind-Carman, who was in charge of the Sawdust Festival children's booth last year, says she would like to see all the children's work on display.
"I look at it from an artist's viewpoint," she said. "And from my childhood, I remember the feeling when the teacher doesn't pick your work. When I see a kid struggle to do something, I put it on the wall."
Still, Lind-Carman agrees with McClintock that teaching children to copy images is not the way to unleash their creativity. Lind-Carman says she often makes crude examples of a project she is teaching so that the children won't feel inclined to copy it or feel frustrated by being unable to match it.
This is the first time the Laguna Art Museum has selected children's work from a local festival. "It's the kind of thing we should be doing," McClintock said. "The Sawdust Festival is an important art happening in the community."
Sawdust Festival artists set up the children's booth as a place where children can learn and create. Visitors to the festival (which this year runs from July 2 through Aug. 28 at 935 Laguna Canyon Road) can drop off their children, ages 6 and older, for a free 45-minute class.
"I saw how starved these kids were for art projects," Lind-Carman said. "They're not getting (art) in the schools because that's the first thing they cut" at budget time.
Lind-Carman said she changed the children's booth from a baby-sitting-type session of crayons and paints to one that included a project each day. The result: about 60 creations by the end of the summer.
"The place was jumping all summer; it really jazzed the kids," she said. "I felt that since Laguna is an artists' community, that there should be more art things for children. After all, when the adults leave this Earth, it will be the Laguna children carrying on the artists' community."
Children's artwork from the 1987 Sawdust Festival remains on display through June 5 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $1 to $2. Information: (714) 494-6531.