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The Clay's the Thing

. . . for the children, as are the ceramics, the paper and the canvases in Fullerton


Considering her last name, Cherene Raphael really only had two career choices: Professional artist or Ninja Turtle. "I think I'd be richer if I'd picked Ninja Turtle," Raphael said with a laugh.

Life might have been more lucrative as a crime-fighting cartoon character, but the work Raphael chose is plenty enriching. She teaches drawing and painting to youngsters at the Art House, a school she runs with her husband John.

The school is just one of the places in the Sunny Hills section of Fullerton that helps students develop their artistic talents.

Kids and adults get hands-on training in clay-molding and pottery-making at the Mudd Art School, founded by two former Sunny Hills High students.

The Mudd school's cafe also caters to those who hunger for artistic fulfillment as well as those who just want to munch on a salad, sandwich or wrap while they dabble in ceramic painting. Visitors can feed themselves while they heed their muse. That's a combo plate you won't find on just any menu.

Drawing on Experience

As an artist, Raphael knows about the importance of inspiration. She was a volunteer art instructor in her daughter's kindergarten class in Fullerton more than 13 years ago when she was struck with the idea for the Art House (1967 Sunnycrest Drive, [714] 870-7119).

One of the students in her daughter's class was a recent immigrant from Mexico who spoke little English and seldom participated in class projects. But when his artwork was finished, he held it up proudly for everyone to see.

"He didn't speak, so everyone thought he was dumb," Raphael recalled. "But he had a visual talent and was able to gain a bit of admiration for it. After that, he just became a different person."

After that, Raphael became something more than a volunteer art instructor. She decided to quit bemoaning the lack of art instruction in schools and start doing more about it.

The Raphaels opened the Art House in 1987, and "shortly thereafter classes filled," John Raphael said. "We were profitable in our first year."

These days, the Art House offers instruction in drawing techniques, color theory and design to about 500 youngsters a week in kindergarten through 12th grade. Classes are held 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays.

The cost for kindergartners through eighth-graders is $40 for four weeks (one hour per week); it's $60 for ninth- through 12th-graders (1 1/2 hours per week).

Cherene Raphael, who has a master's degree in drawing and painting and a teaching credential in kindergarten through 12th-grade art education, teaches many of the classes. "It's a structured program, not free-flowing," she said. "We begin with art history, see what other artists have done, and learn to appreciate different styles. We stress design and composition and other basic elements."

Two of Raphael's colorful, contemplative oil paintings hang in the school's front window, beside whimsical chairs that look as if someone is already sitting in them. The chairs were made by Jamie Keough, one of the Raphaels' four children, all of whom study, teach or otherwise use their artistic training.

"One of the inspirations for the school is our belief that not every child is destined to be a doctor or a mathematician," John Raphael said. "Kids deserve a chance to exercise all of their options."

Every Pitcher Tells a Story

Like the Raphaels, Willie Tabata and his partner Laurie Lee saw a need for after-school art instruction in Fullerton, and they sought to fill it with the Mudd Art School (2051 N. Euclid St. Suite C, [714] 441-0109).

Tabata and Lee teach drawing and painting, but the main medium at Mudd is clay. The pair, who earned degrees in art at Cal State Fullerton after graduating from Sunny Hills, turned avocation into livelihood in 1997.

"Our classes help students learn that they cannot only solve problems logically but creatively," Tabata said. 'It's like flexing the muscles of your right and left hand. There's a reason we have both hands, and there's a reason we have both hemispheres of our brain."

Mudd clay classes start with instruction in technique before students start sculpting a teapot or pitcher or bookends, trying to tell a story along the way. "The bookends work well, because we can pick a theme like their favorite place, and one side will start a story, with the other side finishing it," Tabata said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Tabata introduced a class to the wonders of the potting wheel, helping students dip their tiny fingers in water before they wrapped them around the spinning clay. "It tickles," one youngster said with a giggle.

Students' works festooned the shelves behind Tabata, one shaped like a surfer, another like a soccer player scoring a goal, a third looking like a cross between goal posts and Stonehenge.

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