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Masters of the Pageant : McGaugh Students' Yearlong Project Begins With Study of Artists and Styles


On the playground, fourth-graders talk about Jackson Pollock, in the hallways first-graders discuss Winslow Homer, and in fifth grade, the hot topic is Georgia O'Keeffe.

Art is important at McGaugh Elementary School in Seal Beach, where Pollock, Homer and O'Keeffe will come alive this spring, as they do every year during the school's unusual arts pageant.

During two performances today, eight costumed children will play the parts of famous artists while their classmates pose as live models in life-size reproductions of the artists' paintings.

Lois Cohn, one of the teachers who helps stage the pageant, says the production is patterned after Laguna Beach's famous Pageant of the Masters. "We are doing something at the kid level like the pageant," Cohn says, "but we jokingly say that we have gone one step further. We have added music and dance."

McGaugh's Pageant of the Arts is the culmination of a yearlong project that begins with the study of artists and art styles, including Impressionism, abstractionism and realism. Each year, one famous artist is selected for study, and McGaugh pupils spend the year creating their version of a famous painting by that artist.


Although everyone--from kindergartners on up--gets to help out with the painting, the actual pageant is presented by fourth- and fifth-graders. Paintings performed in past years include Georges Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte," Pieter Bruegel's "The Wedding Dance," and Georgia O'Keeffe's "Music--Pink and Blue II."

The paintings are done under the direction of Shirley Johns, McGaugh's art lab teacher. And each year a new artist and a new painting are added to the McGaugh repertoire, while an old painting is retired. This year the hourlong program includes eight artists and eight paintings.

Chelsea Epps, 10, says the pageant is something she has looked forward to since kindergarten. Last year as a fourth-grader, Chelsea played the part of Georgia O'Keeffe. This year Chelsea and a half dozen other kids will be dancers in a new painting called "Celebration," by Lisbeth Hamlin.

"By the time the kids are in the second grade, they start coming up and saying, 'I want to be in that one or dance in this one,' " Cohn says. "So, really, the kids from kindergarten on grow up with the pageant."


To prepare for the show, fourth- and fifth-graders write a report on the life and times of the artist chosen for study. The research is used to create a script for the pupil who is chosen to play the part of the artist. Chelsea says it took her weeks to learn her part as Georgia O'Keeffe.

McGaugh Principal John Blaydes says the pageant is a good blend of the academic and the arts. "When the students research the artist, they learn the geography of that area, economics of the times. They learn about government and they learn to appreciate the culture. They also learn how to take notes, how to organize and outline."

Once the research and the painting are completed, the school holds a casting call. Fourth-graders get to try out for the parts of the artists, while fifth-graders get to try out as figures in the paintings. After the pageant is cast, the kids then study the painting carefully and begin to create costumes to match their character. If the painting is an abstract, they design costumes to blend in with the lines and colors.

"We don't spend any money for costumes," Lois Cohn says. "Most things come out of closets, and parents send things, and we bring things in." Costumed to match the painting's subjects, pupils freeze in position as the musical theme plays and the curtain goes up, revealing a three-dimensional work of art. At the conclusion of the tableau, the painting then comes to life with music and dance.

Choreography for the show is created by Jean Parks, a third-grade teacher with a special interest in dance. Original music for the show is written by Matt Reid, a professional musician who is also Lois Cohn's son.

The pageant is performed twice--once for McGaugh's 887 pupils this morning and once for the public this evening. The free public performance will be at 7 p.m. in the school auditorium at 1698 Bolsa Ave. in Seal Beach. The show is also taped and will be shown over Seal Beach's local cable channel.

As word about McGaugh's pageant has spread through the education community, Lois Cohn and Shirley Johns often are called upon to present workshops showing other schools how to create their own show. "We receive invitations from all over the state now," says Cohn, who is McGaugh's full-time media center teacher. "We have several schools who now put on a similar pageant."


John Blaydes points out that a school does not have to have a big budget to create its own arts pageant. "It's not that expensive," he says. "You need foam board and lumber to build a set. If you don't count people's time, it costs about $100."

But Blaydes points out that parents, teachers and local residents help contribute to the pageant's success. For example, volunteers from the nearby Naval Weapons Station do the set changes during performances. "People donate services, and teachers go above and beyond the call of duty," Blaydes adds.

Such commitment has paid off. McGaugh School won the Golden Bell Award for "most outstanding art program" in California in 1990 and was one of the top three finalists in a national arts competition in 1991.

"I think the arts are a part of education," Blaydes says. "Art is the soul of our society, so it is very important that the arts be a part of our schools. These are the experiences kids remember--when they had the tap-dance solo in Jackson Pollock."

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