A closer look
Project LOOK! marks 30 years of up-close tours and hands-on activities for kids at the Palo Alto Art Center
On a Friday afternoon, the Palo Alto Art Center's galleries are lively with kids gazing at the art with big eyes. With the help of docents, Ohlone Elementary School fourth- and fifth-graders are talking about line and color, pondering symmetry, and wondering about how papier-mache can look like bronze. Soon, they'll be making claymation films.
It's a far cry from the scene Jeannie Duisenberg remembers from the 1970s. She was a volunteer at the Palo Alto Art Center and a docent at the de Young Museum, and she noticed a striking difference. While there were always tons of children coming into the de Young for educational programs, it wasn't the same in Palo Alto.
"Really, there weren't children in this building," she says.
Duisenberg envisioned a program that would provide special docent tours, hands-on art activities and artist demonstrations for kids. She started working with art-center officials and raising money — on a shoestring, as she recalls — to start programs at the Palo Alto Art Center. "I had a desk and a phone, and I got some grants," she says.
The program launched in 1980, and there must have been some demand because, Duisenberg says, "Right away, for that semester, we had like 2,500 kids."
Today, what's now known as Project LOOK! is marking its 30th anniversary. It's a public/private partnership, with much of its funding raised by the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation. Duisenberg is still on the board. This afternoon, here to watch the Ohlone students' tours, she smiles as she watches the students chattering in the galleries, then looks at a wall display of masks made to look like animal masks from Mali.
"I was always a wannabe artist," she confesses.
Directed by Ariel Feinberg Berson, Project LOOK! serves about 5,000 children annually, with most of the tour groups peopled by kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. About half of the school groups come from Palo Alto, and families are also invited to the three family days the program hosts annually.
Many of the about 20 docents who lead the tours have teaching backgrounds or are themselves artists. As seen in today's tours, it's clear that the docents place great emphasis on engaging children by asking them questions and getting them to look more discerningly at the art.
The current exhibitions seem particularly easy for kids to connect with — the artists themselves are students. Now on display through May 30, the Youth Art Exhibition features work done by Palo Alto Unified School District students, kindergarten through high school; while Cultural Kaleidoscope shows the fruits of an arts-education program that partners Palo Alto and Ravenswood City School District students, in grades K through 5.
The shows are bright and multi-faceted, including the Mali-style masks (done by second-graders) as well as textiles, collages, drawings, sculptures, paintings and digital works of art. The visiting Ohlone students squeal as they spot artwork done by friends or siblings.
While taking the group around, docent Diana Modica pauses for a long moment in front of "Social Anxiety," a sculpture by Palo Alto High School senior Devan Meyer. It contains a birdcage hanging from a tree, with birds fluttering outside it.
"How are the birds feeling?" Modica asks the kids sitting on the floor.
"Free," one child says.
Modica asks the students what kinds of lines and colors they see. A girl talks about the contrast between the straight lines in the cage, and the wavy lines in the tree. Like other works along this wall, the sculpture has dark, muted hues.
"Maybe these artists didn't want you to look at colors; they wanted you to look at lines," Modica says. The kids appear thoughtful.
The visiting kids seem especially drawn to large figurative sculptures made by Gunn High School students. The artists built frames, then crafted papier-mache bodies over them. They painted the sculptures with very evocative paint; one giraffe, made by Gunn junior Yo Yo Tsai under the guidance of teacher Erik Bowman, easily fools the eye into thinking it's a metal sculpture.
Another of the sculptures, a cheerful Buddha made by Gunn senior Sarah Fetterman, sparks smiles among the children. "It kind of makes you feel peaceful," one girl says.
The art isn't all done by big kids, though. The Ohlone visitors can easily relate to a display of Gold Rush-themed dioramas made by fourth-graders. The boxes contain figures of animals and people, and popsicle-stick houses. One boy pipes up, "Is there someone here who did hydraulic mining?"
Modica keeps a straight face. "I don't think anyone did hydraulic mining."
Once the tours are finished, it's time to head down the hall to one of the art center's studios, where the kids will learn how to make a short stop-motion film with clay figures, a computer and a small video camera.
Typically, Project LOOK! events incorporate a hands-on activity related to the exhibition being visited. When students visited the recent art-center shows of works from San Francisco's Mexican Art Museum, they made memory books inspired by Carmen Lomas Garza's nostalgic family paintings, Berson says.
Since the current shows have so many media, it was hard to pick just one kind of project to do today, Berson says. So she settled on claymation. "It's just a fun, different activity that kids don't get to experience at school."
Now she leads the activity, showing the students how to make figures out of colorful clay and then move the figures slowly in front of a white background, taking many photos that will then be turned into a short video. It seems a lot to accomplish in 45 minutes, but the kids dive into the project with aplomb, pairing up to make their sculptures and think of video story ideas.
Two girls make a butterfly and a bee; another sculpts a cheery mushroom with polka dots. As for the boys, one pair makes a cannon shooting a ball at a green man. A boy grins. "Let's make his head go flying off!"
It takes all kinds to make a film festival, and at the end of the afternoon Berson plays the videos on a big screen. Not all the boys create scenes of mayhem, but several do, and after one film that looks like a battlefield story, a girl squeals and says: "That's not a very nice movie. We have dancing best-friend penguins who walk off into the sunset!" Lots of laughter ensues.
Afterwards, it seems some new filmmakers have been born. The kids want to keep their clay figures; they want to bring the movies home; they want to know how to download the claymation program. Berson announces that she's burning the video onto a CD to give to their teacher. This yields some of the biggest smiles of the day.
Info: Tour cycles at Project LOOK! typically run from late January through May and late September through December. At the moment, the program is seeking new volunteer docents; an information session is planned for June 15 from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road.
For more about Project LOOK! call 650-329-2176, or go to www.cityofpaloalto.org/recreation and click on "Arts and Sciences," then "Palo Alto Art Center."