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Opening the Spirit

'Cool' shows what happens when kids are exposed to art. Arts Zone


Dipping a paintbrush into a thick dollop of red paint and making a bold strokethat transforms a piece of blank paper; working with wet clay and feeling an idea take shape under your hands: Imagine how either of those scenarios might feel to a child who never held a paintbrush or a lump of clay before and never even considered the possibility of doing so.

Now picture children and teenagers whose life experiences have been limited by poverty, neglect, language barriers or community violence--who have rarely been beyond their own neighborhood streets--being given the tools and inspiration to create art.

The hunger that young people have to learn and to express themselves is strikingly clear in "Cool Art 2000," an informal, remarkable, 60-piece exhibition of paintings, ceramics and textiles created by students from Los Angeles County elementary, middle and high schools, at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 22.

The works were created under the auspices of Theatre of Hearts/Youth First, an 8-year-old performing and visual arts program that pays professional, working artists to go into county schools for three months or more of concentrated arts instruction.

The poignant self-portraits and the expressive sculptures, masks, ink designs and scratchboard pictures are patently not the result of feel-good busy work.

"We go through a fairly rigorous process of learning the technicalities of art," painter Diana Tremaine Smith said, "including understanding the value of your tools, that they are what allow you to create your artwork, so you need to respect them. It's not just 'Here are some finger paints and let's have some fun.' "

Smith, a Montana resident who shows her work in Los Angeles galleries, did a residency in 1998 at Moffett Elementary School in Lennox with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, who created a series of acrylic self-portraits that are on display. One of the paintings, an astonishingly poignant, maturely rendered image in blues, oranges, reds and white, was done by a 9-year-old boy. (Because some of the young artists are wards of the court, none is publicly identified in order to protect their privacy.)

"Isn't it beautiful? I was so proud of all of them," Smith said. "The gift I get is seeing their self-confidence and personal growth and the joy that they get out of learning to paint."

Smith said that she is always struck by how the shyest children "blossom. I've been surprised at the level of transition from self-conscious to confident."

The 9-year-old artist was one of those students, said Moffett Elementary School principal Joanne Isken. She described him as "very quiet, very withdrawn, a second-language speaker who just came through in the visual arts."

"The Lennox school district as a whole is primarily made up of second-language students," Isken noted, "so the arts become a universal language. [They] allow everybody an opportunity to participate and feel successful. We have students who may not be demonstrating success in traditional academic ways that show themselves in the arts."

Isken's firm support for arts in education has led to several Theatre of Hearts/Youth First residencies in her school, including some in theater and dance, despite the challenge that funding presents. The programs are paid for by hard-to-come-by private and corporate grants.

Isken praises Theatre of Hearts' efforts in helping schools find those grant opportunities.

"They really build a relationship with a school, with a teacher and with the particular circumstances of the classroom," she said. "The artists even come in and plan side-by-side with the teacher before the project begins."

"At-risk" is the ubiquitous term used to describe the students whom the program serves, but a more accurate description, said Theatre of Hearts' founder and executive director Sheila Scott-Wilkinson, is "youngsters across all ethnic lines, who have never been exposed to art before."

"Museums are far away, they don't have supplies, they don't have teachers that come into their communities. So when the professional artist walks in, they bring a whole new world."

'No One Needed to Stand on a Soapbox'

Scott-Wilkinson, like Smith and Isken, passionately relates many stories about how involvement in the arts "opens the spirit." How a young girl who had been "shut down for two years" began raising her hand in class when she participated in a dance program. About a teenage skinhead who initially refused to work with an African American visual artist, then created "the most incredible piece."

"The artist was very put off too, but you know what? Art is the thing that talked," Scott-Wilkinson said. "It bonded them. No one needed to stand on a soapbox, nobody needed to talk about race. The art brought [them] together."

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