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Club scene What do students do when they’re not in class or holed up in the library?
Inspiring young artists Tang Museum workshops engage the minds and hands of local kids
Housing plan New digs for students will offer perks to compete with off-campus living


Kids' stuff at the Tang
by Barbara Melville

Looking at the freewheeling artworks of little children, it's easy to believe that we are all born artists. To keep children’s passion for art alive and growing, good museums typically offer outreach programs. Frequent and free, the Tang’s offerings for kids are so popular that participation may top 4,000 this year. That’s double what it was nearly five years ago when the Tang first introduced its Family Saturdays and K–12 class visits (which bring children into the museum) and its “suitcase” programs (which take the museum out to classrooms and libraries). “Four hundred fifty kids came in December alone,” marvels John Weber, the Dayton Director of the Tang and a museum educator himself. “For a museum our size, that’s a lot.”

One Family Saturday morning, some thirty children, age four to twelve, are trooping with their grownups into the Paradise and Plumage exhibition of Far Eastern art. At the direction of Allison Feigen ’07, an education major and Tang assistant, they all plop down on the floor in front of a seventeenth-century Chinese silk tapestry of exquisite stylized birds.
“What do you see in the tapestry?” Feigen asks the group.
“A bird head,” says a little boy shyly.
“Can you show us?” Feigen asks. “Just point to it, don’t touch.”
“Does anyone see something different?”
Clouds, offers a dad. Wings, leaves, flowers… “Good observations,” Feigen says warmly. Encouraged now, they start to see ribbons and tongues of fire in the exotic curves and zigzags of the birds’ wings and tails.

The simple questions are part of Visual Training Strategies, an approach to teaching art interpretation in which “no prior knowledge is required, and there are no right or wrong answers,” explains Ginger Ertz, the Tang’s outreach coordinator. Even the littlest kids “jump right in,” beams a mother of two.

Next, the group settles down at tables in a side room to create “reverse collages” of birds in the spirit of the Chinese tapestry. Everyone cuts out predrawn bird-shaped holes in sheets of paper. On a second sheet they glue patterned and foil papers, sequins, and beads to create a collage of fantastic “feathers.” A mother with a toddler in her lap guides her five-year-old while also making her own collage. Then each artist lays the first sheet over the second sheet, and presto! Instant art.

“This is not just parents helping kids with motor skills,“ says Ertz. “It’s two generations together in the act of making art. Somehow the energy is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s irresistible.”

Adds a father: “This is very therapeutic. My blood pressure is definitely down.”

When kids can’t get to the Tang, the museum goes to them. Skidmore students have designed portable art experiences that meet state learning standards. Hauling a faux-croc suitcase from a shelf in her crammed and colorful office, Ertz pops the lock and there, tightly packed in plastic bags, is everything eighty kids need to assemble paper sculptures inspired by last semester’s Tang exhibition About Sculpture.

She explains, “First-graders make a little pop-up tent, second-graders do a spiral, third-graders do both, and fourth-graders glue them into what looks like a boring homework folder but…!” She flips open a folder to reveal a burst of color and form. Fifth-graders invent their own spirals and forms—“which always come out looking like amusement parks,” muses Ertz, whose calm, serious manner dwells in perfect comfort with her shock of springy hair, bright-purple sweater, and fancy cowboy boots.

With the help of half a dozen students, interns, and gallery monitors, Ertz presents almost daily children’s workshops, hosts home-school and senior-citizen groups, and handles special projects (such as interactive TV programming for Schenectady schoolrooms). She also orders art supplies by the ream, pound, and thousand: colored papers, glue and scissors, beads, cookies, rocks, feathers, felt, potatoes, pipe cleaners.

Best part of the job? “Watching the kids learn,” says Ertz. “Seeing what they come up with has influenced my own art.” Her outsized fiber-art works, on exhibit at prestigious regional shows and galleries, are actually pipe cleaners twisted together by the thousands to form large, dynamic, slightly fuzzy, abstract sculptures. She stumbled onto the medium while designing a Tang outreach program.

“As a teaching museum, we’re always teaching art and something more: art and machines, art and Native Americans, art and biogenetics,” Ertz tells fifty-five fifth-graders who are gathered to tour the astronomy-inspired exhibit A Very Liquid Heaven. When she asks, “Who knows the names of the constellations?” hands shoot up. The children have been well primed by their teachers, so they know Cassiopeia, the Dippers, Orion, and lots more. (The Tang provides teachers with educational guides for each show, but more important, Weber says, “We’re on the progressive edge with school tours because we emphasize action-based learning.”)

The group splits in two, half to do art and half to tour the show; later, they’ll switch. The tour group clusters around century-old negatives loaned by the Harvard College Observatory. The kids quickly pick out comets, an eclipse, nebulae, and constellations. They’re equally good at puzzling out the visual and thematic elements of a star-themed contemporary painting. It’s not surprising, notes Weber. The combination of seeing art and doing it sharpens children’s cognitive abilities so that, “by the time they’re in fifth grade, the observations they make can be quite sophisticated.”

Meanwhile, the group’s other half settles down to imagine and create their own night skies on black poster board, at tables loaded with a lush abundance of art supplies: colored pencils, fresh paper, dishes of colored sequins shaped like stars and flowers, scissors, and gluesticks.

A magical quiet descends as the children work with surprising intensity, picking colors and shapes, adding a spray of sequins or beads, judging how each stroke affects the balance of the whole.

When someone says, “I messed up—I need a new piece of paper,” Ertz saunters over and asks, “What’s messed up? Hey, that actually looks kind of cool. You think we can do something with that?” As an artist herself, Ertz knows mistakes can free the spirit and gin up the imagination. “Of course I’ll give them a new paper if it’s really necessary,” she says. “But it’s so important that they learn problem-solving at a young age.”

Half an hour later, the spell is broken when Ertz sings out, “Five minutes! When you’re finished, I’d appreciate it if you put the pencils back in the cups with the points up.”

The finished artworks—sparkly, funky, and original—range from scientific-looking star maps to a jokey cartoon cosmos depicting “A Nestle’s Milky Way.” One astonishingly beautiful piece features exotically patterned colored-pencil planets trailed by a slipstream of small white stars. In some cases, the kids copied each other’s ideas. No problem, says Ertz. “When you give everyone the same materials, no two come out the same. That’s what makes art. That’s what makes us human.”