Two Benjamins

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan.

The day I planned to bring my eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, to Creating the United States, I called my dad. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, just a few towns over from where the shot heard ‘round the world rang out (this is how Schoolhouse Rocks memorialized that event, remember?) and only a short trip from where Paul Revere rode his famous ride. Dad, who grew up in Lexington, MA, is a man who has always been surrounded by—and fascinated with—history.

In fact, it was my dad whom I thought most about when I first walked through Creating the United States. I looked closely at the old documents, the artifacts, and the photographs, and took a journey through the American Revolution. As I stood in front of the uniform of a Continental Army officer (which also caught the eye of The Family Savvy, in this enthusiastic write-up), I thought of Dad and the stories he told about Revolutionary War muskets that our family once housed as part of a collection.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

The old satchel displayed alongside the uniform reminded me of things that men carried to war, like the Civil War−era canteen that still sits in my parents’ living room. It once belonged to Danforth Maxcy (my great-great-great-great-uncle), who was injured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died on the train ride back home to Maine. He was twenty-one. Continue reading

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Perfectly Imperfect Art

I’ve been interested in contemporary art since college, and it’s been a dream of mine to one day display a small but significant collection of art. In fact my husband and I recently contemplated the purchase of a piece by Ed Ruscha and Raymond Pettibon just last weekend, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art 10th Birthday Auction (if you click through, BTW, that’s me and the hubby in that top pic!).

But like most of my friends, our desire for an art collection had to take a backseat to an even stronger desire for food, shelter, and clothing, so we make due with home-sourced works of art and other creative endeavors. That’s one reason why I am a huge fan of the Skirball’s art studio. Visiting the studio offers a great way to unlock the special creative genius within your own family or circle of friends.

Nieces hard at work in the Family Art Studio, while their Aunt Jenn snaps pix.

My nieces hard at work in the Family Art Studio, while their Aunt Jenn snaps pix.

The Skirball’s drop-in art studio, a.k.a. Family Art Studio (or Studio Schmoodio, as a smarty-pants colleague once suggested for a name), is ideal for a group of friends or family wanting to partake in the artful assembly of recycled and repurposed ordinary materials, turning misfit minutiae into mini-masterpieces.

I’m not a parent but have regularly brought all six of my nieces since the Skirball started offering the drop-in art studio during busy summer and holiday weeks. You definitely don’t need to have kids to enjoy the studio, but kids always raise the bar when it comes to fearless innovation in hands-on art making.

I’m proud to share the story of a recent sleepover at my house with Ava and Claire, two of my six nieces, who were at a loss for sufficient dolls.  Looking around our place, they expressed to me their wish to have baby dolls for their bigger dolls to hold. Finally, Ava glanced over at the book shelf, full of the miscellaneous detritus of my life (don’t judge), and she suggested using a set of tiny spools of thread in a rainbow of colors as the “babies.” The girls even matched the color of the thread spool to the outfit worn by the “mama doll.” In true Skirball studio style, it was good fun for us to repurpose stuff that was right in front of us.

I’m also totally captivated by the story of Caine’s Arcade.  He’s another young guy who reminds the adults in his world about repurposing simple materials and cultivating our desire to create.  I had the chance to meet Caine and play in a “pop-up” version of his arcade at a recent Unique LA show. [And for those wanting to follow in Caine’s footsteps, stop by the Skirball on Saturday, October 6, to take part in the Global Cardboard Challenge.]

Left: That’s Caine back there behind his cardboard creations. Right: My husband, Victor, lines up to meet the famous Boyle Heights artist.

Left: That’s Caine back there behind his cardboard creations. Right: My husband, Victor, lines up to meet the famous Boyle Heights artist.

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Step Right Up for Family Fun

I can’t believe it’s Labor Day Weekend! There hasn’t been a dull moment here in Family Programs all summer long. What has been so wonderful is to see families come in for one of our Family Amphitheater Performances, check out the Family Art Studio, pop over to our archaeological dig site, and play games as part of our Game On! program….all in one afternoon. One day, there was a family from Miami who had never been to the Skirball. When they arrived at the art studio, their eldest daughter (there were three kids total, and I’m guessing the eldest was around eleven) was feeling a bit grumpy. She just didn’t want to be there (there was even some tears). But by the time they left, the whole family was all smiles. The mom let me know how grateful she was that they had visited such a wonderful and special place. That’s music to my ears!

Just one more weekend to enjoy summer family fun at the Skirball. To get you excited about coming over, check out some highlights that I (along with a few from photographer friends) captured from the past few weeks.

“Yay, puppets!” squeals one toddler named Azalea, who came to see marionette artist Scott Land perform in the amphitheater!

“Yay, puppets!” proclaims one toddler named Azalea, who came to see marionette artist Scott Land perform in the amphitheater!

Scott Land's traditional marionettes wait patiently before taking center stage.

Scott Land's traditional marionettes wait patiently before taking center stage.

Scott Land does a synchronized dance using a pair of matching skeleton puppets, which leaves the crowd in stitches!

Scott Land does a synchronized dance using a pair of matching skeleton puppets, which leaves the crowd in stitches!

How’d he do that? Scott Land's clown puppet blows up a balloon before everyone’s eyes.

How’d he do that? Scott Land's clown puppet blows up a balloon before everyone’s eyes.

Filipino dance and music ensemble Kayamanan Ng Lahi captivates audiences with graceful moves and colorful costumes.

Filipino dance and music ensemble Kayamanan Ng Lahi captivates audiences with graceful moves and colorful costumes.

Kayamanan Ng Lahi features more than a dozen children, who were all crowd favorites.

Kayamanan Ng Lahi features more than a dozen children, who were all crowd favorites.

Volunteer teen Carla helps a young visitor create a shadow puppet. Throughout the summer, these dedicated teens have been a fixture in our Family Art Studio, working one on one with children.

Volunteer teen Carla helps a young visitor create a shadow puppet. Throughout the summer, these dedicated teens have been a fixture in our Family Art Studio, working one on one with children.

Kids and grown-ups delighted in seeing their creations come to life. Many families who didn't know each other performed little plays for one another.

Kids and grown-ups delighted in seeing their creations come to life. Many families who didn't know each other performed little plays for one another.

All summer long, visitors could play oversized board games as part of our “Game On!” family program. These teens invented their own version of giant checkers.

All summer long, visitors could play oversized board games as part of our “Game On!” family program. These teens invented their own version of giant checkers.

Connect Four is a board game classic. Better yet if it’s a jumbo version like this one!

Connect Four is a board game classic. Better yet if it’s a jumbo version like this one!

This little visitor was proud of her skills in the toss game. She wanted me to see how well she could toss.

This little visitor was proud of her skills in the toss game. She wanted me to see how well she could toss.

A dad and his daughters spend a relaxing afternoon doing this puzzle at the Skirball’s archaeological dig site.

A dad and his daughters spend a relaxing afternoon doing this puzzle at the Skirball’s archaeological dig site.

Young archaeologists discover something hidden in the sand… and wonder what it is!

Young archaeologists discover something hidden in the sand… and wonder what it is!

Happy visitors grooves to the folk tunes of musician Melissa Green.

Happy visitors grooves to the folk tunes of musician Melissa Green.

This music fan couldn’t help but get up and dance to Melissa Green

This music fan couldn’t help but get up and dance to Melissa Green.

Melissa Green performs a rousing rendition of “Monkeys Jumping on the Bed”… this little visitor bumps her head every time!

And when Melissa Green performs a rousing rendition of “Monkeys Jumping on the Bed”… this little visitor bumps her head every time!

Between songs—“Jewish music with a twist”—the ensemble Mostly Kosher cracked up the audience with their family-friendly jokes. They also taught a few Yiddish phrases!

Between songs—“Jewish music with a twist”—the ensemble Mostly Kosher cracked up the audience with their family-friendly jokes. They also taught a few Yiddish phrases!

Mostly Kosher’s lively songs featured wonderful strings.

Mostly Kosher’s lively songs featured wonderful strings.

In between their comedic interludes, Mostly Kosher's female vocalist sang a gorgeous song in Hebrew

In between their comedic interludes, Mostly Kosher's female vocalist sang a gorgeous song in Hebrew.

Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam band had no trouble getting kids to jam right along with them.

Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam band had no trouble getting kids to jam right along with them.

It’s been a hot summer, so our rainbow mist arbor was a popular attraction. These kids even brought their own swimsuits!

It’s been a hot summer, so our rainbow mist arbor was a popular attraction. These kids even brought their own swimsuits! Photo by Peter Turman.

A little girl named Astrid gets a lift from her dad. This was her first venture into the rainbow mist and won’t be her last!

A little girl named Astrid gets a lift from her dad. This was her first venture into the rainbow mist and won’t be her last! Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

“Yay, puppets!” squeals one toddler named Azalea, who came to see marionette artist Scott Land perform in the amphitheater!Scott Land's traditional marionettes wait patiently before taking center stage.Scott Land does a synchronized dance using a pair of matching skeleton puppets, which leaves the crowd in stitches!How’d he do that? Scott Land's clown puppet blows up a balloon before everyone’s eyes.Filipino dance and music ensemble Kayamanan Ng Lahi captivates audiences with graceful moves and colorful costumes.Kayamanan Ng Lahi features more than a dozen children, who were all crowd favorites.Volunteer teen Carla helps a young visitor create a shadow puppet. Throughout the summer, these dedicated teens have been a fixture in our Family Art Studio, working one on one with children.Kids and grown-ups delighted in seeing their creations come to life. Many families who didn't know each other performed little plays for one another.All summer long, visitors could play oversized board games as part of our “Game On!” family program. These teens invented their own version of giant checkers.Connect Four is a board game classic. Better yet if it’s a jumbo version like this one!This little visitor was proud of her skills in the toss game. She wanted me to see how well she could toss.A dad and his daughters spend a relaxing afternoon doing this puzzle at the Skirball’s archaeological dig site.Young archaeologists discover something hidden in the sand… and wonder what it is!Happy visitors grooves to the folk tunes of musician Melissa Green.This music fan couldn’t help but get up and dance to Melissa GreenMelissa Green performs a rousing rendition of “Monkeys Jumping on the Bed”… this little visitor bumps her head every time!Between songs—“Jewish music with a twist”—the ensemble Mostly Kosher cracked up the audience with their family-friendly jokes. They also taught a few Yiddish phrases!Mostly Kosher’s lively songs featured wonderful strings.In between their comedic interludes, Mostly Kosher's female vocalist sang a gorgeous song in HebrewLucky Diaz and the Family Jam band had no trouble getting kids to jam right along with them.It’s been a hot summer, so our rainbow mist arbor was a popular attraction. These kids even brought their own swimsuits!A little girl named Astrid gets a lift from her dad. This was her first venture into the rainbow mist and won’t be her last!
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Conversations and Connections: A Teenager in his Native Habitat and at the Skirball

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

Living with my fifteen-year-old son, Arlen, is like living with a wild animal. A non-verbalizing, hedonistically hibernating, ragingly ravenous animal. The palate craves only that which is smothered in cheese. The wild mop of hair has been known to cause strangers on the street to nag (or, to my dismay, compliment and rave). The clothing is monochromatic. The vocabulary is monosyllabic. Parenting a teen is like living with a beast whose sole mission in life seems to be to eat more groceries than I can afford and to thwart my efforts at planning quality family time.

According to a great article I recently read in National Geographic, my son’s qualities could probably be attributed to the intense brain reorganization that kids his age experience. Nonetheless, I desire more connection with him, and I’m willing to try almost anything. Since many of my conversations with Arlen involve overwrought pop psychology on my part, and a series of grunts and somewhat base gestures on his, it has come as a huge relief to find things to do at the Skirball that inspire genuine communication. The Skirball is well known for our programs for young families (I am itching to sleep overnight inside Noah’s Ark at the Skirball), dynamic adult education, and thought-provoking and beautiful exhibitions. But did you know that there is a mélange of meaningful moments to be had at the Skirball with that favorite teen animal/angel in your life? I am so happy to trumpet to you all that there is. THERE IS!

I spent my first six months working here as a timid observer, wondering if my son would like our offerings—or if he could be coerced into showering for any of them. Then, I signed up for the Skirball’s Teen Parenting Seminar, hoping it would give me techniques to foster open communication. The seminar was full of eager parents and brave new ideas—and the most simple yet profound of these zapped my brain like a laser: do new things with your teenager.

So, we tried doing a few things. We went to the Huntington Gardens, but my own mom and I enjoyed their gorgeous rose gardens a teensy bit more than my son—although he did get in some quality texting time. We have now been to Disneyland more times than

probably anyone you know, and frankly we are both bored of the “happiest place on earth” (how much is there actually to say about Space Mountain?).

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

It took me a while to realize that some of the Skirball’s offerings might suit my son very well indeed. So, I signed us up for a Skirball Member preview of a documentary film called Bully that has been at the center of much media attention. It was a stealth invitation, meaning that I just texted him that I had scheduled an activity. I didn’t give him any details. This turned out to be a brilliant plan on my part: I hadn’t given him any information, so there was nearly nothing to which he could object.

After watching Bully together, something incredible happened: we really talked afterwards. We talked and talked for over an hour about the film, as well as my son’s own experiences with bullying. For the first time in a long time, we had an organic, genuine conversation. The experience was transformative, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. We were transformed from a mother and son who barely recounted the banal happenings of our day to each other… into two people who felt substantially closer to one another. And the best part is that we now have a way to keep that closeness going. Continue reading

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My Top 10 Puppet Festival Moments

I was among the many excited visitors and staff who were at the Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 1. It was a joyous day. During the daylong program, I worked with a terrific photographer, Peter Turman, to capture the day in pictures, meeting many Puppet Festival attendees along the way and catching countless special moments. Here are just ten memorable moments caught on camera that give a sense of what the Puppet Festival was all about: an array of puppets throughout the day and fun for the whole family.

Rene’s Marionettes were a huge hit! The Founder’s Courtyard was full of animated audience members, and I felt transported to what I imagine a Vaudeville-era puppet show would have been like. This dancing skeleton marionette was my favorite among the marionettes.

Rene’s Marionettes were a huge hit! The Founder’s Courtyard was full of animated audience members, and I felt transported to what I imagine a Vaudeville-era puppet show would have been like. This dancing skeleton marionette was my favorite among the marionettes.

I am convinced that the Noah's Ark ostrich puppet is a favorite among the toddler crowd. Something about the smiling beak leaning down towards them puts an instant look of glee on their faces, as exhibited by this little girl. I bet that that same happy look continued for the rest of the day. After this photo was taken, she and I played a short game of peek-a-boo.

I am convinced that the Noah's Ark ostrich puppet is a favorite among the toddler crowd. Something about the smiling beak leaning down towards them puts an instant look of glee on their faces, as exhibited by this little girl. I bet that that same happy look continued for the rest of the day. After this photo was taken, she and I played a short game of peek-a-boo.

Another enchanting ostrich moment: This little girl was entranced by the puppet. She kept putting her hand out and every time the beak would touch her open palm, she would laugh and smile at her dad. Their delight was contagious: I couldn’t help but laugh and grin, too.

Another enchanting ostrich moment: This little girl was entranced by the puppet. She kept putting her hand out and every time the beak would touch her open palm, she would laugh and smile at her dad. Their delight was contagious: I couldn’t help but laugh and grin, too.

Hunter, the incredibly realistic-looking Juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet from the Natural History Museum, made a few appearances throughout the day. Crowds of visitors closely surrounded him all day, waiting with anticipation for something scary to happen. Here, Hunter appears docile, almost like he’s smiling for pictures. But the next minute....

Hunter, the incredibly realistic-looking Juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet from the Natural History Museum, made a few appearances throughout the day. Crowds of visitors closely surrounded him all day, waiting with anticipation for something scary to happen. Here, Hunter appears docile, almost like he's smiling for pictures. But the next minute....

… he roars ferociously and unexpectedly! Visitors jump and scream out of fright, then laugh, reminding themselves that he’s just a puppet!

… he roars ferociously and unexpectedly! Visitors jump and scream out of fright, then laugh, reminding themselves that he’s just a puppet!

This young girl was enamored with the Noah's Ark snow leopard puppet. She ran into this puppet as her mother was getting ready for them to go home. Her mom patiently tried many times to get her to say goodbye to the puppet, but it was as if this girl and the snow leopard were in their own little world. She would not budge. The young visitor finally left with a longing look, after giving her new friend one last snuggle and pat on the head.

This young girl was enamored with the Noah's Ark snow leopard puppet. She ran into this puppet as her mother was getting ready for them to go home. Her mom patiently tried many times to get her to say goodbye to the puppet, but it was as if this girl and the snow leopard were in their own little world. She would not budge. The young visitor finally left with a longing look, after giving her new friend one last snuggle and pat on the head.

It was amazing to see the level of creativity and work that went into many of the homemade puppets made by children and their parents at our puppet-making stations. This purple-clad girl crafted her dog puppet with her mom. She first came up to me making barking sounds. I peered down and saw her boisterous puppy coming to see me. It was by far the most “high-tech” and realistic visitor-made puppet that I saw during the festival. To the girl’s delight, I gave her dog a few pats. Then she told me all about how she and her mother made this amazing puppet. She was very proud.

It was amazing to see the level of creativity and work that went into many of the homemade puppets made by children and their parents at our puppet-making stations. This purple-clad girl crafted her dog puppet with her mom. She first came up to me making barking sounds. I peered down and saw her boisterous puppy coming to see me. It was by far the most “high-tech” and realistic visitor-made puppet that I saw during the festival. To the girl’s delight, I gave her dog a few pats. Then she told me all about how she and her mother made this amazing puppet. She was very proud.

This girl and her grandmother are putting the finishing touches on the giraffe puppet they were making together. The puppet festival was truly inter-generational!

This girl and her grandmother are putting the finishing touches on the giraffe puppet they were making together. The puppet festival was truly inter-generational!

This particular show seemed to be an audience favorite, as it was musical and invited lots of audience participation. As families watched Zomo, The Trickster Rabbit—A West African Folk Tale, children helped tell the story by playing drums, clapping, and repeating words after the storyteller. I love how engaged each of the kids looks in this photo. It also shows the variety in puppet shows presented at the festival: some were staged in dark theater-like settings meant for visitors to sit back and take in, while others, like this one, were in brightly lit rooms in which the visitors themselves became part of the story.

This particular show seemed to be an audience favorite, as it was musical and invited lots of audience participation. As families watched Zomo, The Trickster Rabbit—A West African Folk Tale, children helped tell the story by playing drums, clapping, and repeating words after the storyteller. I love how engaged each of the kids looks in this photo. It also shows the variety in puppet shows presented at the festival: some were staged in dark theater-like settings meant for visitors to sit back and take in, while others, like this one, were in brightly lit rooms in which the visitors themselves became part of the story.

Even with puppets and activities continuing throughout the day, there was plenty of room for families to just relax and enjoy the Skirball grounds and architecture. After dancing in a circle while their parents finished lunch, these three girls took a moment to look at the beautiful pond in the Taper Courtyard. After a long day of puppet interaction and performances, the trio shows what we love to see at the Skirball: a celebration of family, friends, and community while experiencing new things together.

Even with puppets and activities continuing throughout the day, there was plenty of room for families to just relax and enjoy the Skirball grounds and architecture. After dancing in a circle while their parents finished lunch, these three girls took a moment to look at the beautiful pond in the Taper Courtyard. After a long day of puppet interaction and performances, the trio shows what we love to see at the Skirball: a celebration of family, friends, and community while experiencing new things together.

Rene’s Marionettes were a huge hit! The Founder’s Courtyard was full of animated audience members, and I felt transported to what I imagine a Vaudeville-era puppet show would have been like. This dancing skeleton marionette was my favorite among the marionettes.I am convinced that the Noah's Ark ostrich puppet is a favorite among the toddler crowd. Something about the smiling beak leaning down towards them puts an instant look of glee on their faces, as exhibited by this little girl. I bet that that same happy look continued for the rest of the day. After this photo was taken, she and I played a short game of peek-a-boo.Another enchanting ostrich moment: This little girl was entranced by the puppet. She kept putting her hand out and every time the beak would touch her open palm, she would laugh and smile at her dad. Their delight was contagious: I couldn’t help but laugh and grin, too.Hunter, the incredibly realistic-looking Juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet from the Natural History Museum, made a few appearances throughout the day. Crowds of visitors closely surrounded him all day, waiting with anticipation for something scary to happen. Here, Hunter appears docile, almost like he’s smiling for pictures. But the next minute....… he roars ferociously and unexpectedly! Visitors jump and scream out of fright, then laugh, reminding themselves that he’s just a puppet!This young girl was enamored with the Noah's Ark snow leopard puppet. She ran into this puppet as her mother was getting ready for them to go home. Her mom patiently tried many times to get her to say goodbye to the puppet, but it was as if this girl and the snow leopard were in their own little world. She would not budge. The young visitor finally left with a longing look, after giving her new friend one last snuggle and pat on the head.It was amazing to see the level of creativity and work that went into many of the homemade puppets made by children and their parents at our puppet-making stations. This purple-clad girl crafted her dog puppet with her mom. She first came up to me making barking sounds. I peered down and saw her boisterous puppy coming to see me. It was by far the most “high-tech” and realistic visitor-made puppet that I saw during the festival. To the girl’s delight, I gave her dog a few pats. Then she told me all about how she and her mother made this amazing puppet. She was very proud.This girl and her grandmother are putting the finishing touches on the giraffe puppet they were making together. The puppet festival was truly inter-generational!This particular show seemed to be an audience favorite, as it was musical and invited lots of audience participation. As families watched Zomo, The Trickster Rabbit—A West African Folk Tale, children helped tell the story by playing drums, clapping, and repeating words after the storyteller. I love how engaged each of the kids looks in this photo. It also shows the variety in puppet shows presented at the festival: some were staged in dark theater-like settings meant for visitors to sit back and take in, while others, like this one, were in brightly lit rooms in which the visitors themselves became part of the story.Even with puppets and activities continuing throughout the day, there was plenty of room for families to just relax and enjoy the Skirball grounds and architecture. After dancing in a circle while their parents finished lunch, these three girls took a moment to look at the beautiful pond in the Taper Courtyard. After a long day of puppet interaction and performances, the trio shows what we love to see at the Skirball: a celebration of family, friends, and community while experiencing new things together.

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A Wild Rumpus, In Memoriam

My own beloved copy of In the Night Kitchen.

My own beloved copy of In the Night Kitchen.

By now we’ve all heard the news of the passing of Maurice Sendak, noted author and illustrator, and for some of us a permanent fixture on the bookshelf. Every major news outlet has covered the story and many have published heartfelt remembrances. In his May 9 appreciation, Los Angeles Times Book Critic David Ulin applauds how Sendak’s work reveals “the power of our minds to transform the world.” The day Sendak died, I listened with rapt attention as Wicked author and Sendak mentee Gregory Maguire talked about their friendship on NPR.

Here at the Skirball, Maurice Sendak’s artwork graced our galleries twice: first in the 2002 exhibition Where the Wild Things Are, which was my first experience ever at a Skirball exhibition; and then again as part of our 2010 exhibition Monsters and Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books. In the fall of 2009, as audiences geared up for Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, the Skirball hosted a daylong family program inspired by the classic Sendak book, featuring themed art projects, storytelling, and even a wild rumpus jam.

When the interactive exhibition Where the Wild Things Are was on view here in 2002, children took turns sliding into a giant bowl of “Chicken Soup with Rice,” a gallery component inspired by the Sendak book of the same name. Photo by Vernon Williams.

When the interactive exhibition Where the Wild Things Are was on view here in 2002, children took turns sliding into a giant bowl of “Chicken Soup with Rice,” a gallery component inspired by the Sendak book of the same name. Photo by Vernon Williams.

For me, Sendak’s books weren’t ones that I ever outgrew. Even as a teenager, a college student, and now an adult (and certainly as a parent of a young child), I continue to go back to them. The eccentric drawings of monsters, cooks, and creatures captivate me still. Most of them outcasts or oddballs—from Max and the “Wild Things” to Rosie from Chicken Soup with Rice, from Mickey from In the Night Kitchen to the little dog Jenny from Higglety Pigglety Pop—Sendak’s characters are ones I can always relate to.

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People, Let Me Tell You ‘Bout My Best Friends

A little storytelling and impromptu drumming with Noah’s Ark fans Griffin and Zoe.

A little storytelling and impromptu drumming with Noah’s Ark fans Griffin and Zoe.

I have the best job. Ever. My job title is something like Retail Sales Associate at Audrey’s Museum Store, which means I sell toys and books to people visiting Noah’s Ark at the Skirball. But really I like to call myself the Toddler Whisperer because I spend my days interacting with very young children. My measure of a good day isn’t how many sales I’ve had, but rather, how many of my “regulars” have come to visit. I have a whole pocketful of friends:

Jasper, my animal expert, knows everything there is to know about the wild kingdom. At four years old, he can identify a Xenops or a vole as readily as a pig and a cow (the latter two being alike because, as Jasper informed me recently, “they are both farm animals”). On one of his visits, he brought his most special animal book to share with me. I was expecting a small board book or a thin paperback. Out of his backpack came a heavy animal encyclopedia that must have taken quite a bit of effort for him to lug around. I was so happy that he wanted to share it with me. Together we sat and looked through it.

You can always tell when Aidan and his younger brother Connor are approaching the store. You hear the calls of “Shaaarrrooonnn! It’s my friend!” as Aidan enters the store and gives me a hug. Aidan likes to sit at our little “touch table,” where kids can feel free to play with select store goodies, and try out the toys. He often comes up with creative names for them. Continue reading

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From X the Owl to Snow Leopards to Frog Belly Rat Bone

The Rogue Artists Ensemble will perform The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone this Sunday at the Skirball's Puppet Festival. Another step in my short but ongoing journey knowing puppets.

The Rogue Artists Ensemble will perform The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone this Sunday at the Skirball's Puppet Festival. Another step in my short but ongoing journey knowing puppets.

So the early history of me and puppets is probably not dissimilar from yours if you were born in the early seventies. It goes something like this:

When I was really little, King Friday and Queen Sara Saturday ruled a kingdom of hand puppets on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Cornflake S. Pecially manufactured rocking chairs, X the Owl admired Ben Franklin from inside an oak tree, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde lived in a Museum-Go-Round, a design concept that would either delight or nauseate (or both), but give architecture critics plenty to chew on.

Daniel Stripèd Tiger inhabited a grandmother clock in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Daniel Stripèd Tiger inhabited a grandmother clock on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Courtesy of Photofest.

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Bunking Up Aboard the Ark

I’m no camper. The platform wedges that I wear religiously and the complete absence of sweatshirts from my wardrobe give me away. So you can imagine that I was a little uneasy about the prospect of spending a night “camping” at the Skirball with my seven-year-old daughter, Georgia, as an attendee at one of the first Skirball family sleepovers.

Noah's Ark Sleepover bed setup

With folk-art Noah’s Arks “sailing” above them, my daughter, Georgia (left), and her good friend Gillian (in sparkly hat) get ready to say good night at a Skirball family sleepover. You don’t have to rough it if sleeping bags aren’t your thing. Airbeds welcome!

More accurately, I was ambivalent about it. While the idea of shimmying into my jammies in a setting far, far more public than the comfort of my own home gave me the willies, I was genuinely excited to experience Noah’s Ark at the Skirball from the perspective of a nighttime inhabitant. As project director for Noah’s Ark, I’d been closely involved in bringing it to life, and I love it on a visceral level (insofar as one can feel that way about a museum space). The thought of taking part in a nocturnal Noah’s Ark experience with my own daughter, who came into this world as the project itself was being born, was a thrilling prospect.

I’ll confess that Georgia and I didn’t start off as model campers. Soon after checking in, we trundled off to choose our sleeping quarters on the ark along with other families. Spotting what we agreed was the perfect spot—a cozy corner beneath a display of Skirball folk-art ark vessels from around the world—we unpacked our gear and set up camp. Minutes after I’d inflated our air mattress (yes, of course I brought one), Georgia happily flopped back onto it, shouting, “This is the life!” But then, with panic and dismay, I watched our bed deflate pitifully… with Georgia still lying on top. We were forced to sleep directly on the gallery’s wooden floorboards that night, which gave me a new understanding of the term Not a happy camper (though my daughter slept like a baby). Continue reading

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