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Going with the river's flow

A mural in Santa Monica gives students a new way to think about the importance of waterways in our lives.

November 28, 2002|Jessica Hundley | Special to The Times

WHAT happens when you take a museum, a mall, an artist, an idea and 200 kids and put them together? The first installation from the Santa Monica Museum's "Wall Works" program, a 19-foot mural whose components are surprisingly varied, an imaginative collage of shapes and images, from frogs to turtles, lizards, fish and serpents.

The mural, on display at the Santa Monica Place Mall just outside the third floor of Robinsons-May, is a collaboration of the museum, Santa Monica Place, L.A. artist Alison Saar and 231 students at nine schools. Constructed of strung-together wood shingles, each piece painted in shades of gold, white, blue and black, the public art project offers a little respite from the crowds, tinsel and Santas that otherwise populate the mall during the holidays.

"We felt that taking an art collaboration directly into the classrooms would be an interesting thing to do. It sprang from talking with the teachers directly and feeling out what their needs were. And it grew from there," says Asuka Hisa, the museum's education director. "There were so many people involved with this first project, and I tried to find an artist who would work particularly well with this kind of collaboration."

To initiate the program, Hisa asked Saar to create the project that became known as "Undercurrents."

Drawing on the same inspirations that fuel her own work (which explores her African American heritage and folk art and utilizes found and organic objects), Saar created a lesson plan that combines literature, environmental awareness, history and art in one neat package. "I had been working quite a bit with rivers in my own work," Saar says, "and thinking in general about rivers and what they mean to communities. I had also been reading the Langston Hughes poem 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers.' So I had the students read the poem and think about those ideas and explore what has happened to our own L.A. River. I saw it as a very loose theme that could tie in a lot of things at once."

The Santa Monica Museum provided students with an "art kit" filled with supplies, a lesson plan and video created by Saar and wood shingles hand-cut by the artist. After a classroom reading of the Hughes poem, students were asked to express their interpretations and thoughts visually.

"The whole project was interesting," says Sue Li, a student at Culver City High School. "We learned about the importance of rivers and of how rivers became the source of civilization, and it was interesting to see what people did with their pieces. A lot of people did work that related to fish and to water."

Li's art teacher, Kristine Hathawacka, found "Undercurrents" to be "such a full experience, each facet of the program was great. It's unusual to be able to have an exhibit and to have the kids be able to contribute individually to a larger whole."

Justine Fassino, another Hathawacka student, says, "It was an individual thing, but at the end it all came together, so it was kind of an 'individual collaboration.' It was fun doing it on your own, but I saw other people's work in the class, and it looked really good, so it will be exciting to see how it all turned out with the pieces together."

It is exactly this collaboration -- the joint effort of schools, artists, students and the museum -- that Hisa sees as the "Wall Works" program's strongest offering.

"It provides a great sense of 'united we are greater than the sum of our parts,' " she says, "and I think it gives everyone a sense of having participated in a much larger event."



Where: Santa Monica Museum of Art's Neighborhood Outreach Gallery, Santa Monica Place Mall, third floor,

395 Santa Monica Place.

When: Through Jan. 12.

Info: (310) 586-6488.

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