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Teaching Tourist : For This Traveling High School Art Instructor, Her Classroom Is the World

February 02, 1989|ADRIANNE GOODMAN | Times Staff Writer

As Phila McDaniel walked breathlessly from her classroom to the art gallery at Gardena High School the other day, she was, as usual, preparing for a trip.

A crumpled note pinned to her gray-and-black-striped vest reminded her of things to do, headed by the admonition: "Don't forget briefcase." With her overloaded schedule, it's easy to see the need for reminders.

McDaniel, 57, is an art instructor, intrepid world traveler, tour leader, artist, photographer, art gallery curator, art restorer. She is seeking air time for a television documentary she directed on her travels in China. She has amassed a highly regarded collection of costumes worn by some of China's ethnic minorities.

Finalist for Award

Somehow, McDaniel also finds time to study for her doctorate and continue work on two books she is writing. And for the second consecutive year, McDaniel is one of 10 finalists for the annual Bravo Awards for excellence in teaching the arts.

Like the eye of a storm, the mild-mannered McDaniel remains unfazed amid the flurried pace of her life. "I love the drama and the adventure," McDaniel said. "I love art, and I just like to go places and to see what I can find out from many different standpoints."

An art teacher for 33 years, McDaniel has taught at Gardena High since 1972. She is curator of the school's extensive collection of California art, which consists of 78 paintings donated to the school since 1919 by Gardena High alumni.

For the last 28 years, she has combined teaching with traveling. She instructs Gardena students in painting and art history during the school year and, for the last 10 summers, has led tours into remote sections of China. Before China opened its doors to Western tourists in 1979, she traveled extensively in Japan, Greece, India and Nepal. Since then, she has been to China 17 times.

Wherever McDaniel goes, interesting things seem to happen.

"I got into a little altercation with a Tibetan warrior last summer, and I'm still suffering from the damage he did to my arm," the scholarly looking McDaniel said. The warrior was of the fierce Khampa tribe, she said.

As she recalls it, the fracas began when a Tibetan tour guide recommended that participants refrain from buying the warrior's goods in the Xigatse Bazaar, an outdoor folk market near Mt. Everest, because the items were too expensive.

Remarkable Collection

"The warrior got angry, and he tried to carry our guide away," McDaniel said. "Then I tried to rescue the guide. That's when I got hit by the warrior. He tore the tendons in my arm and separated the muscle, so my arm is very weak now."

McDaniel's next voyage was a presumably safer trip to the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, where a major exhibition of her collection of ethnic costumes and jewelry, along with her photographs of the Chinese residents who made them, recently opened and will be on display through June.

Museum Director Kit Freudenberg said McDaniel's collection is remarkable because of the completeness of the costumes. Few travelers to China see such costumes, she said, and it is possible that the Chinese will stop making traditional outfits as the country becomes more Westernized.

"People who travel to China usually do not go farther than Beijing or the Stone Forest," Freudenberg said. "In 10 years, I'm willing to bet you will not be able to find people in China making these kinds of traditional costumes. It's important that it be collected and examined."

McDaniel is a member of the China Exploration and Research Society, founded by a National Geographic Society researcher last year and dedicated to preserving the history and culture of China.

Her research specialty is documenting the customs of China's 55 ethnic minority groups. So far, she has collected material from 40 of the groups, including members of the Miao, Dong, Tibetan and Manchurian minorities. Like the costumes, ethnic customs may be about to vanish.

"We're trying to document things before they disappear," McDaniel said. "It's an urgent thing, because once these people get Western civilization, once they get television, once they know what's out there in the rest of the world, they're going to change. . . . So we have to document things now while they still exist in their pure state."

McDaniel speaks some Chinese. "Enough to get out of trouble when I'm lost," she said.

"I have very good relations with the Chinese tourist bureaus. They know I'm a serious researcher and not just frivolous. I take people on my tours who like what I like--art, and focusing on the unique qualities of China's ethnic minorities."

In 1986, McDaniel traced the path of Mao Tse-tung's Long March across China in 1934, traveling 900 miles by bus along the dusty roads crossing the Aba grasslands. The seven-day feat was celebrated by the governors of the Sichuan and Ganshu provinces, each of whom greeted her tour group with banquets and ceremonial white scarfs called khagatas that were draped around their necks.

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