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THE GOODS : Art Nouveau : Forget the paint-by-number kits and lanyards. Today's kids are learning to design jewelry and identify a Picasso.

March 17, 1995|SUSAN JAQUES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Five-year-old Jackie Hoffman carefully hands her drawing of a woman's torso to the most discerning critic possible--older sister Nicole. Moments later, she is paid the ultimate compliment: "Jackie, this is real art."

With 200 other children, the sisters create works of art each week at the Monart school in Santa Monica. There, 4-year-olds learn representational drawing and students 8 and older sketch the human body by observing a live model. "You don't have to wait until you grow up to become an artist," reads a sign on the classroom wall.

There's a whole new approach to children's art, one that combines traditional techniques with imagination and creativity. The old paint-by-numbers kits have faded and been replaced by an array of innovative arts-and-crafts kits. New books combine hands-on projects with text. High-quality titles that introduce children to the various art forms and famous artists are available. And parents are fostering their children's interest through a variety of after-school classes.

Home craft kits from create-your-own beaded watches, Venetian glass bead jewelry and hand-painted silk scarves are the toy trend of '95, according to industry experts. Companies such as ALEX, Creativity for Kids and Curiosity Kits are leading the way with scores of award-winning products. Kids can make picture frames, wildlife masks and Native American pottery; print stationery and party invitations, and even turn "Trash to Treasure" with recycling kits.

The kits offer families an activity to share. "A lot of working parents want to do projects with their kids but don't have time to assemble all the ingredients," says Joanne Oppenheim, co-author of "The Best Toys, Books & Videos for Kids" (HarperPerennial, 1995). "The fact that some of the kits require parental help is actually a plus. It gives busy parents an opportunity to connect with their children and do something together that's pleasing and entertaining."

With a dizzying array of new products for parents to choose from, experts advise picking and choosing carefully. "It's annoying and frustrating to spend money and then be disappointed with what's inside the box," Oppenheim says. Some projects, such as jewelry making, require the dexterity of older children. Some crafts are targeted to girls or boys, while others are gender neutral.

Crafts have become the second most important category at the Imaginarium toy store chain. "The manufacturers have basically gone out and put all the components into a box," says Imaginarium buyer Patty Johnson. "For $9.95 to $29.95, the end result is a neat finished product made with the children's own creativity. There's no right or wrong."

Publishing companies are also changing their approach to children's art. One trend is to combine art projects with books. With a series of books in the $10 to $20 range, Klutz Press is a leader in the category. Titles such as "The Incredible Clay Book" and "Watercolor for the Artistically Undiscovered" are targeted to children and the young at heart. Other publishers in the novelty book trade include Andrews and McNeil, Workman Press and Running Press.

Another development is the growing selection of high-quality books that can inspire children to pursue art. Rizzoli will introduce three of its popular first-person "Weekend With" books on Picasso, Monet and Winslow Homer in paperback this year. Through Abrams' "First Impressions" series, children learn what inspired 15 painters, sculptors and architects.

"Books give children a context for art," says Abrams Editor Robert Morton. "Now that there are more of these types of books available, they are increasingly a child's first exposure to art as something special."

To fill in the art gap caused by public school cutbacks, more parents are taking advantage of after-school programs at art schools, parks and museums. Many parks have modernized their art programs, adding a variety of crafts such as woodworking, sand painting, ceramics, cartoon drawing and model-car building.

"Children have always been interested in arts and crafts, but they seem even more interested lately," says John Pawlek, a superintendent for the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks. "We have lots of kids from either single-parent homes or homes in which both parents work. For a nominal cost, the kids can come and enjoy art."

Contemporary children's art classes reflect a new interest in the finished product. "In the '60s, children's art programs were highly experimental and process-oriented, and people didn't seem to care if a project stayed together or fell apart," says Harriet Miller, director of the Barnsdall Junior Arts Center, part of the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department. "There's been a gradual move toward more structure and tradition, and at the same time, we've added the treasure of artists of many nationalities."

Another new aspect of children's art is environmental awareness. In Teresa Tolliver's popular ceramics classes at the Barnsdall Junior Art Center, children add used fabric, wood and yarn to create their projects. "In the '60s, we always used new things," Miller says. "Today, we use recycled material and take care not to use any contaminants or colors that are toxic."

According to experts, most children simply stop drawing at about 8 or 9. What can parents do to prevent this?

"Older children want to make things look the way they see them, but it can be overwhelming when they don't have the tools," says Karen Jackson, director of the Monart school. "Drawing is a teachable skill. Given enough guidelines, everyone can draw."

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