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A thousand words' worth

Storytellers bring art to life and make learning fun at the Getty Center.

February 08, 2007|Cindy Chang | Special to The Times

FOR some parents, simply getting their kids through the doors of a museum is a triumph. Asking them to actually look at the art might seem like pushing it. Best to let them sail past the busts, perhaps absorbing a bit of the great masters' genius by osmosis.

Strange, then, on a recent Saturday at the Getty Center to see a group of children as young as 3 staring raptly at, of all things, a 17th century French cabinet.

The man expertly holding their attention was not a museum tour guide but professional storyteller Antonio Sacre. In narrating the tale of how the cabinet was made, Sacre used tried-and-true techniques for getting youngsters to swallow an otherwise bitter educational pill.

He told jokes. He described little men with funny accents jumping out of the cabinet's elaborately decorated drawers. He sprinkled in Spanish and French phrases. He asked the audience to imagine what they would use it for if they owned the cabinet.

"A magic stone!" "One of my Hot Wheels!" "Chocolate cake!" children shouted when Sacre asked what they would store in the drawers of the ornate cabinet, which is believed to have been made for King Louis XIV by Andre-Charles Boulle and is one of the centerpieces of the Getty's decorative arts collection.

The session was part of a Getty storytelling series that resumes on Sunday with Michael D. McCarty's tale of an African man's life as a slave, inspired by a 1758 stone bust of a black man. McCarty's performance runs monthly through May, as does another by Lou Stratten, who will use music to bring to life the painting "Dance Before a Fountain" by Nicolas Lancret.

A special summer series, with Victoria Burnett telling a story about a life-size painting of a rhinoceros as part of the exhibition "Oudry's Painted Menagerie," will take place every Saturday from May 26 through Sept. 1. Along with the West African-style storyteller Asha's Baba, Sacre will resume his French cabinet tale in a fall series beginning Oct. 1.

In 2002, the Getty began holding storytelling performances in an auditorium setting, but it was not until the following year that the storytellers and their audiences moved to the galleries, face to face with the artworks, that the concept came into its own.

"You can go to one place, settle down, get comfortable, spend a little time just with one work of art," said Rebecca Edwards, the Getty's education specialist for family audiences. "The other thing is, it's a much more kid-friendly format for learning about art than browsing through a gallery. The tour guide, the label on wall, is really designed for adults."

By the end of Sacre's story, the audience had painlessly learned that the rooster lording it over the lion and the eagle in the center of the cabinet represented France and its victory in battle over its European rivals.

From one of the little men Sacre described leaping out of the cabinet -- none other than Boulle himself -- they learned about the technique of marquetry, which the artist used to inlay carvings of pewter, tortoiseshell, brass, ivory and wood in the shape of birds, lions and other intricate designs.

"It was interesting enough to gain the interest of many ages of children, and it was interesting for adults too," said Norma Wills of Calabasas, who brought her three grandchildren, ages 7, 9 and 11, to the performance. "It helps children to see more when they come to the museum, to see more than just an object."

MCCARTY'S story, which he has performed at the Getty 16 times since spring 2005, draws from the little that historians know about the black man with a scar on his forehead who may have been the model for Francis Harwood's sculpture "Bust of a Man," made in Italy and believed to have been commissioned by the duke of Northumberland.

From those bare facts, McCarty imagines the story of a man named Kwaku, who is taken from an African village as a young boy to become a slave in Barbados, then is bought by the English duke and taken on a tour of Europe, where he is freed and the bust is made to commemorate his freedom.

The stories told at the Getty are not pure flights of fancy -- many are based on extensive historical research. If not a man who actually lived, McCarty's Kwaku is a man who could have lived. His story illuminates the inhumanity of slavery as well as the slave trade's global reach.

"When I tell people this story and they look at this piece, they're not just looking at a piece in a museum, they're looking at a person, this African man who is a real person to them now, who was at one point a kid, the same age as some of these kids here, who was out playing when he was captured and put in shackles and chains," said McCarty, who leavens the darkness of his story with snippets from African folk tales. "He watched his family die. He was a real person who suffered, and they see it and they know it."


Family storytelling at the Getty

Where: Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A.

When: Two Sundays a month beginning this week. Four performances each day. Sign up at museum information desk.

Price: Free admission; $8 for parking

Info: (310) 440-7300;


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