Artful Penguins: A Gift from a Noah’s Ark Visitor

During my days staffing the Noah’s Ark Store, I know I work in a magical place. I’ve seen toddlers take their first steps. I’ve seen children who don’t know each other and don’t speak the same language play together. I’ve seen eighteen-month-olds negotiate their parents up from one toy purchase to three. I’ve seen good parenting and bad parenting, tantrums and delight, joy and sorrow, excitement and disappointment. And sharing. Lots and lots of sharing.

In celebration of Penguin Awareness Day, let me tell you about my good friend Aiden.

Aiden is nine years old. A cute red-haired boy, he comes to Noah’s Ark regularly with his family and has been drawing the animals aboard the Ark since he was four. I took special notice of him because he always came with a drawing pad. Eventually, Aiden began showing me his drawings after his visits to the Ark. He told me that he dreams about one day opening up his very own exhibit—re-creating the animals, adding attractions, and even creating items for his very own gift shop.

A few of Aiden's sketches and the Noah's Ark animals they are modeled after—this is one talented kid!

A few of Aiden’s early sketches and the Noah’s Ark animals they are modeled after—this is one talented kid!

One day last year when Aiden was visiting, I asked if he would draw a picture for me. He was happy to oblige! He asked me what my favorite animal on the Ark was, and I said the penguins. He agreed to bring his picture the next time they visited. Many months passed and I didn’t really expect him to remember. Continue reading

Welcoming America at the Skirball

Whether our families are recent immigrants or our ancestors journeyed to this country 200 years ago, sharing our stories helps us learn from each other and build bonds with one another. During the week of September 16–21, 2014, as part of National Welcoming Week, the Skirball hosted an interactive event where visitors shared their family immigration stories in the Noah’s Ark gallery.

The Skirball partnered with the online storytelling group Immigrant Nation to create story cards that visitors filled out with their family histories, their ideas about the meaning of home, or details about their family traditions. Once the cards were completed, staff members snapped photos of the visitors and displayed the cards in the gallery for others to read and enjoy. Below is just a sampling of more than 100 cards that were created over the course of the week, highlighting the rich cultural diversity of Skirball visitors.

Where does your family’s story begin?



Continue reading

A Teacher Becomes Part of the Family

Getting to know the animals at Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, including this adolescent mountain gorilla. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

Getting to know the animals at Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, including this adolescent mountain gorilla. Photo courtesy of Kristin Welch Zurek, pictured here.

I lived in Los Angeles for fourteen years before I discovered the Skirball Cultural Center. I don’t know what took me so long, but I’m so happy I finally found my way to this gem of a museum.

As an LAUSD kindergarten teacher, I am always searching for ways to integrate more art into my curriculum. Last summer I saw a listing for the teacher professional development program Teaching Through Storytelling at the Skirball and took a gamble. It has paid off in ways I never could’ve predicted.

The day began with a story, told by one of the Skirball educators, that illustrated many of the theatrical, musical, and physical techniques we would learn over the course of the next three days. Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

Storytime at the Skirball. Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

When I arrived at the Skirball last July, I felt like a new student as I waited on the amphitheater steps for the workshop to begin. The day began with a story, told by one of the Skirball educators, that illustrated many of the theatrical, musical, and physical techniques we would learn over the course of the next three days. How could I predict that I would find Noah’s Ark to be so exquisite, or that I would be thoroughly enchanted by the storytellers who work there? Wow. How could I predict how helpful this professional development program would be? In my eighteen years of teaching, this is in the top three learning experiences this student has had.

By lunch, I felt like a very welcome houseguest. I ate quickly so that I could visit the exhibition Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. I went back to the exhibition three more times during my three-day visit, and each time I read more about Gary’s life and discovered new details in the art and objects on display.

Gary’s dining table in last summer's exhibition, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

Gary’s dining table in last summer’s exhibition, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

By the end of the first day I felt like family. I was immediately welcomed into this community, like a newfound relative you meet and bond with effortlessly. We were given passes to come back to Noah’s Ark with our real family, and I couldn’t wait to share this experience with my kids.

Over the course of the three-day workshop we explored many different modes of storytelling that used music, movement, Continue reading

Angelenos, Come to The Wild Side

Hunter Hunted at the last Into the Night event in July. Photo by Lindsey Best.

Hunter Hunted at our last Into the Night event in July. Photo by Lindsey Best.

Local bands Jenny O., In the Valley Below, and Body Parts as well as sets by KCRW DJ Travis Holcombe, oversized games, live wild animals, cocktails, craft making, a balloon artist, nighttime activities in Noah’s Ark, and screenings of Dr. Seuss’ The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T—that is what we can offer if you join us Friday, August 30 for our end-of-the-summer extravaganza, Into the Night: The Wild Side! For a little insight into the three local bands who will be performing, members of our Programs Department discuss the band they’re most excited about bringing to the Skirball:


Photo by Melanie Bellomo.

When I saw Jenny O. perform at The Echo back in March of this year, along with Harriet (who performed at the Skirball on July 12), the chatting, mingling audience (including myself) was immediately captivated. Jenny has a surprisingly demure yet powerful stage presence, and her band has a warm, old-timey sound that is reminiscent of The Beach Boys and Harry Nilsson, whom Jenny O. cites as her greatest influences. Her latest album, Automechanic (featuring accompaniment by Jake Blanton of The Killers), is full of deeply personal lyrics and interesting harmonies that are a testament to her artistic growth since her 2011 EP, Home. I’m really excited to see the band perform at the Skirball, and am looking forward to hearing some of my favorites like “Automechanic” and “Well OK Honey” live!
—Kasia Gondek, Program Coordinator

InTheValleyBelow_1I cannot remember how I found In the Valley Below. It might have been one of those Bands-You-Ought-to-Have-Heard lists, or maybe a friend or colleague recommended them. But ever since I played their first EP, I’ve been describing them as my new favorite band. Continue reading

A Day in the Life of a Noah’s Ark Strawberry

strawberry close-upStrawberries (not real ones, but very real-looking ones) are a hot commodity on board Noah’s Ark at the Skirball. I watch them travel all over—getting shared, hoarded, lost, or found, eventually finding a home somewhere among all the other inhabitants. I have even found them in my own pocket, and then they must endure a brief respite in my office before they are returned to the gallery.

Most strawberries, though, begin and end their day on the Ark. They wait patiently, nestled among other food. (We talk a lot on the Ark about being patient. Imagine how difficult that would be on a long journey!)

But suddenly, one strawberry might get scooped away from the food table and into a basket with other strawberries, which gets carried across the room to a bear who awaits some strawberry snacks.hands-at-the-table

After whetting the bear’s appetite, the strawberry then gets swept up in the palm of a toddler. This is where it stays for a while, because it’s such a natural fit in her palm and, well, she likes to eat strawberries, too.

cutefaceandpalmcombinedEventually, however, the toddler soon moves onto the next activity, and the strawberry is tossed across the floor, where it rests out of sight for a while … Continue reading

Hello, Gorillas

Azalea-and-gorillasIf you have not met the new mountain gorilla family on Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, I highly recommend a visit! Welcoming these new members of the Noah’s Ark family has been very exciting for all of us at the Skirball. We have had many questions from staff and visitors about the gorillas and how they fit into the harmony we have established on the Ark. So, I thought it would be nice to check-in with my old friend Jennifer Chatfield. We consulted with Jennifer, former gorilla keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo for over twenty-five years and, in my opinion, the undisputed queen of gorillas, during the design process for the gorillas. Now, as the family settles in, I thought it was time to call her up again to see if she would share more of her in-depth knowledge of these wonderful creatures.

What have you learned from the gorillas you worked with?
I’ve learned a lot from gorillas! First, I think that when working with any animal you must be quiet inside. Leave the stress of your commute, an argument with a co-worker, and all your other issues at the door. The gorillas have taught me to be more aware and to pay close attention to body language. Since their vocalizations are limited, they communicate with their actions. This has made me more aware of their desires and moods, and has made me a better reader of people, too.

What is something about gorillas that most people don’t know?
A lot of them are very ticklish and will laugh or giggle when you tickle their belly.

single-gorillaPeople often think of gorillas in a negative way because of films like King Kong. What would you like to change in people’s minds about gorillas?
In spite of their size and some impressive teeth, gorillas are very gentle. They tend to shy away from confrontation rather than fight. Even silverback gorillas (the lead male in a family group)—who get into territorial disputes—fight in a ritualistic manner and there usually aren’t too many serious injuries. Part of the beauty of being a gorilla is that if you stand up, charge, and beat your chest, it scares most interlopers off.

In what ways do gorilla families behave like human families?
While the makeup of a gorilla family is different than a usual human family—with one silverback, several females, and their offspring—there are strong bonds in the group. The silverbacks play a role in child-rearing, often playing gently with infants barely the size of the palm of their hand. Continue reading

Taking a Ride

bike-sign-1The month of May marks annual National Bike Month, during which people in cities all over the country are encouraged to ride more, learn about bike safety and mechanics, and commute to work. I myself have been a bike commuter for almost twenty years, first when I lived in Seattle, riding through rain, sleet, and hail to get to my high school teaching job, and now climbing through a mountain pass to get from my home in Santa Monica to my job at the Skirball.

I am often asked why I ride my bike to work (and if I’ve totally lost my mind or have a death wish), especially in the last few years during the massive construction project along the 405, which has made the 405 corridor bumpier and more haphazard (and hazardous).

arriving-at-skirbsFor me, riding my bike has always been a mix of personal pleasure and public service. I enjoy the exercise of it, the hour or so of vigorous riding to begin my day. But I also see it as a way to honor that very core Jewish value which we at the Skirball try to impart through our programs and exhibitions: that of taking care of the earth and each other. I feel, perhaps naively, that I’m doing something (albeit a small something) for our planet: a bit less CO2 emitted from a tailpipe, a few more friendly exhales in the direction of the plants along the road, a bit less stress put out into the world.

I start out each early-morning ride pedaling through the dark in Santa Monica with a red light on the back of my bike and a headlamp strung up around my helmet. Continue reading

Brooklyn’s Best: Our Noah’s Ark Puppet Designer

There's Chris, greeting me at the door to his studio.

Chris Green, at the entrance to the Red Hook studio suite.

Brooklyn is cool. Way cooler than I am (47, married with child, driver of a Volvo, living in Brentwood—you get the picture). And even cooler than Brooklyn in general is a particular artist’s enclave in a particular section of Brooklyn called Red Hook that is the workplace of designer/puppeteer Chris Green. Chris is none other than the visionary creator of thirty-five-plus kinetic animals—some freestanding with moving parts and others full puppets in the bunraku tradition—that inhabit Noah’s Ark at the Skirball™. Designed in collaboration with the Noah’s Ark creative consultant team led by Alan Maskin and Jim Olson of Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, Chris’s life-sized creatures, from Japanese red foxes to South African zebras, are absolute icons of Noah’s Ark. Their beautifully carved wooden heads and outlandish bodies are fashioned from discarded items as diverse as whirling air ventilators and wooden sake cups.

Hence my excitement over visiting Chris in his Brooklyn studio while on a family trip to the East Coast last week. My mission was to check in on a new family of animals that Chris is working on: four mountain gorillas who will be coming aboard Noah’s Ark permanently this June. These adorable gorillas have movable arms and hands, and bodies made from repurposed material. Their heads, made of basswood, are carved by Chris’s gifted colleague and studio-mate, Eric Novak.

Isn't he just so serene and beautiful!

One of the gorilla heads in process; carved by Eric Novak.

Each time I’ve visited Chris’s studio over the past seven years I’ve felt like I was entering Geppetto’s workshop, and this time was no different. It’s a magical place, with dusty tools and gadgets of all sizes and puppets of every conceivable style—some created by Chris and others by Eric or one of the other designers who share the two-story workspace, capacious by New York standards. Continue reading

Ketubbot: Helping Couples Find Just the Right One

The many styles of kettubot on display in Audrey's Museum Store.

Need someone to walk you through the options? I can help!

It’s wedding season! One of my personal joys at Audrey’s Museum Store is meeting and guiding engaged couples through the process of selecting the perfect ketubbah. A ketubbah is a Jewish wedding contract and often a decorative document that hangs proudly in the home for years to come as a symbol of mutual love, commitment, and partnership. A ketubbah may be the first contract a couple signs together and the first piece of art purchased together.

With the multitude of options for text, personalization, and artist techniques (among them lithography, hand-painting, giclee printing, and papercut), selecting a ketubbah can be a confusing decision. As ketubbah specialist, my goal is to simplify the process, to give personal attention and historical context, and to make this experience memorable and meaningful.

The Vorspans posing with their beautiful and freshly inked <b>kettubah</b>!

The Vorspans posing with their beautiful and freshly inked kettubah!

What’s especially gratifying are the continuing relationships with couples I’ve worked with over the years. In 2007, Elana Taylor and Ben Vorspan came to Audrey’s to choose their ketubbah. After much deliberation and contemplation—Audrey’s carries hundreds of ketubbah designs created by dozens of artists from all over the world, from L.A. to New York to Israel—they chose “Beside Still Waters” by Amy Fagin. What they liked about it—and what I find so appealing about Amy’s designs—are her intricate patterns and vibrant colors.

Continue reading

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.