What’s Your Story: Fifth Graders Share Their Family Histories

When you enter this classroom you are:
unique, explorers, authors, musicians, readers, successful, inventors, respected.

These words welcome visitors to teacher Debbie Elkayam’s fifth grade classroom at Haskell Elementary School, an LAUSD school in the San Fernando Valley. And they are a perfect representation of the teacher and her students.

Several years ago, I met Ms. Elkayam during her class field trip to the Skirball for the extremely popular Grade 5 School Tour of Americans and Their Family Stories. I was one of the educators leading the interactive tour in which students explore the commonalities and differences among immigrant stories from around the world. At one point in the tour, Ms. Elkayam mentioned that she uses this tour—along with the Skirball’s teacher guide and creative activities she designed herself—to make the topic of immigration and heritage more personal for her students. Curious about how she did so, my next question was: When can I visit your classroom?

Soon, I was happily on my way to Haskell Elementary for the first of two planned visits. On my first trip in February, I learned how Ms. Elkayam prepares students for the program at the Skirball by connecting the theme of immigration to their lives.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom. Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom.
Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

Looking around the classroom, I saw projects displaying illustrated family stories, art making, and explorations of the diverse heritage of her students. Clearly, the Americans and Their Family Stories tour worked extremely well within Ms. Elkayam’s curriculum. Continue reading

What Big Art Is All About: Conversations with Robert Landau and Enrique Vidal

I recently sat down with photographer Robert Landau and billboard artist Enrique Vidal to discuss the billboards on view in the exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. In addition to telling me more about the history of the billboards and the labor of creating them, they each spoke of their great admiration for billboard art. This passion drove a teenaged Robert to photograph the billboards on the Sunset Strip for over a decade, a project that profoundly influenced his artistic vision. It also led Enrique to make a living “painting big,” first as a billboard artist and later as a muralist for cultural sites around the world. Hear more of their fascinating stories in the videos below, plus read some of my favorite moments from our conversations.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Interviews have been edited for clarity.

Excerpt from my interview with Robert Landau, Photographer:

Can you tell me a little more about how you came to document the rock & roll billboards?
I had an old Nikkormat, which was kind of a poor man’s Nikon camera in those days. But the smartest thing I did was shoot color transparency film. I shot Kodachrome slides, because my main purpose in shooting them was that I would have slide shows for my friends. That’s as far as I thought the images would go. I’d invite all my friends in—they lived in other parts of the city, they never saw these things because [the billboards] came and went so frequently—and I’d have slide shows and show [my friends] all these great billboards.

I began just by trying to take good pictures of the billboards when the light on them was good. I was crossing the Strip every day: Every time I went anywhere in the city, I had to travel on the Strip. So I’d see them. I was traveling early to go to school. I’d see the crews out there, so I got to know the sites, and when and where and how [the crews] changed [the billboards] and all that. Very quickly thereon, I realized it was just as interesting to see what was happening around the billboards. Some of the first art photographers that I was interested in were mostly French street photographers . . . and I thought that they were capturing so well that city and that time. I thought I could try to do the same thing with Los Angeles.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

What specifically drew you to these billboards?
My father, Felix Landau, was one of the early art gallerists in Los Angeles, on La Cienega. He started in the late 1940s, but throughout the ’50s and ’60s [he] had a very influential gallery Continue reading

I Remember Bill

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, June 27, 1971. Photo by John Olson. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

I never met Bill Graham (1931–1991), but I remember him. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, you remember Bill. In the exploding rock & roll universe of that era, he loomed as large as anyone. Bill was no mere concert promoter; he was a visionary, a celebrity, a force of nature. His productions were not just music but a revolutionary form of theater and audience communion. Whatever the venue—the legendary Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms, Golden Gate Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the Oakland Coliseum—if the marquee said Bill Graham Presents, you knew the music would be amazing. More than that: it would be an experience. It would be like…well… the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you can imagine it. Earthshaking. Mesmerizing. Titanic. Unforgettable.

Bill Graham sons, David and Alex, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, seen here with their mothers Bonnie MacLean and Marcia Godinez. It was an exciting night, full of anticipation as we looked forward to sharing Bill's legacy with the public.

Bill Graham’s sons, Alex (far left) and David, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.
They are pictured here with their mothers, Marcia Godinez and Bonnie MacLean (far right).

Yet Bill wasn’t only about the music. He was about the message. He believed that music could be a force for social change, and he led the way to the mass phenomenon that came to be called the benefit concert. Bill had protean powers of energy, persuasion, and will. When it came to something he believed in, he could not be stopped. In 1985, President Reagan announced that he would visit the Bitburg Cemetery. When Bill learned that fifty Nazi SS officers were interred there, he launched a national campaign of protest. As a child he had barely escaped Nazi Europe; his mother and one of his sisters perished in the camps. Despite enormous pressure to cease and desist, Bill would not. Bill was not one to cease and desist. The president went ahead with the visit. But history will remember Bill’s courage and conviction.

Continue reading

President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2015

When it comes to rock & roll music, I can’t claim much familiarity. I grew up with the music of Israeli folk dancing, which still moves my heart (and my feet!). The world of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana was known to me only through my children. I was well aware that this music had become a worldwide phenomenon, but I knew very little about how it happened.

Photo From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938, Gelatin silver print.

From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938.

Now, with the Skirball’s presentation of the exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, I am finding out. I am learning of the life and legacy of a remarkable Jewish immigrant, orphaned by the Holocaust, who did as much as anyone to launch that revolution and transform it into a communal experience and a social force.

Born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, Bill was in many ways a classic example of the American success story: a young boy with no advantages, rising from obscurity to the pinnacle of success solely on the strength of unstoppable personality, drive, and determination. Continue reading

The Stories of Teaching

It’s mid-morning on a Saturday in March and I am standing in a Skirball meeting room with forty K–Grade 12 educators, listening intently as two women introduce an activity. I am leading a teaching workshop about integrating movement into the curriculum as part of Teaching Our World Through the Arts, just one of several teacher professional development programs offered here. We have been invited to tell the story of a teaching moment that we are proud of, and to follow four simple guidelines in the telling:

  1. Speak from your heart.
  2. Listen from your heart.
  3. Be spontaneous.
  4. Be concise.

The talking piece—a tennis ball—is passed around the circle, and one by one the stories emerge: a third-grade teacher who helped a student succeed after he spent his first years falling through the cracks; a fifth-grade teacher who shows up at her students’ homes to help with homework if they are struggling; a middle school teacher who learned to be brave by watching a student come out to his mother. The stories range from heartwarming to heartbreaking—eliciting tears, laughter, nods of agreement, and smiles of recognition.

This process, known as “council,” is inspired by talking circles, a ritual found in cultures all over the world. The version we are using in the workshop was adapted by the Ojai Foundation, a nonprofit that has introduced this process to more than 20,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students through its Council in Schools program. Council in Schools provides training and assistance for schools (public, charter, private, and parochial) and educational support agencies to implement council programs.

Grade school teachers “listen from their hearts” as teaching artists from CONTRA-TIEMPO Urban Latin Dance Theater share the council process as well as movement strategies for the classroom. CONTRA-TIEMPO uses council in their community choreographic labs and other educational outreach programs. Photo by Peter Turman.

Grade school teachers “listen from their hearts” as teaching artists from CONTRA-TIEMPO Urban Latin Dance Theater share the council process as well as movement strategies for the classroom. CONTRA-TIEMPO uses council in their community choreographic labs and other educational outreach programs. Photo by Peter Turman.

In my experience with council, its strength comes in part from its simplicity. For teachers, the work is in crafting and developing questions or prompts that engage their students and support the content they wish to share. I spoke about council with Jill Valle, a licensed therapist, council trainer, and school counselor at Wildwood Upper School, who has been leading council as part of her work since 2001. Valle says using council with students “cultivates deep listening skills and concise expression as well as fostering authentic connection between students.”  She has used council as both a processing tool and to support academic content. “Whatever your subject matter, there is way to use council as a tool for deepening understanding, ” Valle adds. “Once you have the basic guidelines, the possibilities are really endless in terms of what you can create and how you can use it.” Continue reading

Community PoeTree: A Collaboration

Skirball_SkirBlog_Build a Better World_students 1At the Skirball Cultural Center, we aim to inspire our students to take action in the larger community. The Build a Better World school program encourages Grade 1 and 2 students to seek involvement through service and collaboration, equipping them to make a positive difference in their world for people, animals and the environment. Art, puppetry, and creative play are used to build awareness and empathy, presenting big-picture concepts at an age-appropriate level. The program begins with a tour of Noah’s Ark at the Skirball and continues in their classroom, often in collaboration with local partner organizations, such as k9 Connection, Heaven on Earth Society for Animals and the Los Angeles Cactus and Succulent Society.

Recently, I had the pleasure of facilitating a Build a Better World project in which the Skirball partnered with the Downtown Women’s Center, an inspiring organization that is dedicated to serving the unique needs of homeless and low-income women in Downtown Los Angeles. We wanted to create an opportunity for continued collaboration between the students and our partner organization—hoping that the Downtown Women’s Center would add perspective to community outreach and awareness, and present the issue of homelessness to students in a real and relatable way.

Skirball_SkirBlog_comfort bags

For the first step of the project, students from Ms. Lemle’s class at Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School visited Noah’s Ark and created personalized “comfort bags” filled with donated toiletry items for Downtown Women’s Center residents. Students learned a little bit about the center and discussed the importance of caring for others. The child on the right is selecting some shampoo and soaps to include in a personalized bag for the women.

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The Old and the New: Making Passover Your Own

Tiered Seder Plate, Franz Strobl (?),1814.

Tiered Seder Plate, Franz Strobl (?),1814.

Having been a docent since the Skirball opened in 1996, I have had numerous opportunities to talk about the many objects in the core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America. One of my personal favorites is the seder plate shown above, on display in the Holidays Gallery. Made in Vienna in 1814, this beautiful silver plate has three tiers for matzah and seven screw-on cast figures who hold the ceremonial Passover foods. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the figures are different sizes and are wearing clothing from different eras. The reason for this is unknown. Continue reading

Puppet Talk with Joshua Holden and Mr. Nicholas

On stage with Mr. Nicholas. Photo by Shawn Patrick Higgins.

On stage with Mr. Nicholas. Photo by Shawn Patrick Higgins.

This year’s Skirball Puppet Festival is all about storytelling: the performers were chosen because of their talents as tale-tellers, the art projects will include making puppets to perform in a grand finale story, and a number of new large-scale performances will take place in the Skirball’s magnificent outdoor spaces. One of the most exciting story-shows featured at this year’s fest is by award-winning puppeteer and performer Joshua Holden, creator and star of The Joshua Show. In anticipation of the upcoming festival, I thought I’d find out a little more about this New York–based performer and his journey to puppet stardom. I sat down with Joshua and Mr. Nicholas at a small coffee shop in Park Slope, where we talked puppets, bow ties, and Mister Rogers.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I liked puppets when I was a kid, but the thought of being a puppeteer never crossed my mind until after I graduated college. I first stepped on stage at the age of seven to play the title role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. In high school I studied acting at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and later earned a BFA in acting from Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University. I received a call from the Chicago Children’s Theatre asking me to audition to assist master puppeteer Blaire Thomas on a new puppet show of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. After the weirdest audition I had ever been on, I somehow booked the job. Blaire was incredibly patient and giving. From there, people started hiring me as a puppeteer. I kept it secret that I had no clue what I was doing until I gained confidence and eventually fell madly in love with the art form! I moved to New York City and landed a role on the Broadway tour of Avenue Q. I also toured the nation with Peter Pan threesixty° as the lead puppeteer. Then in March 2012, I created a short ten-minute sketch for a puppet slam in Chicago that has grown into a full-length, award-winning nationally touring smash hit. (Wow, it feels really cool to say that.)

Avenue Q! Can you find me? Courtesy of The Joshua Show.

Avenue Q! Can you find me? Courtesy of The Joshua Show.

Continue reading

Billboards, Covered

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.  © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.
© Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

The Skirball’s upcoming exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, opening March 24, highlights a unique era in rock & roll advertising when record companies took over the Sunset Strip with one-of-a-kind hand-painted billboards to promote their artists’ new albums. These rock advertising billboards, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, were elaborate works of art. They were also highly ephemeral, residing on Sunset Boulevard for just a month or two at a time before being dismantled and whitewashed in anticipation of the next record release. With the advent of MTV in the 1980s, billboard ads for music disappeared from the local landscape. Robert Landau’s photographs, featured in the exhibition, remain to document this brief moment when the biggest names in the music business—from Bowie to Bruce to the Beatles—clamored to be seen on billboards.

Of course, the music also remains. I revisited my days as a college radio DJ and made a mix that includes a few of the legendary musicians whose billboards appear in the exhibition—as covered by other musicians. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Mar/Apr 2015

Each year at this season, Jews around the world celebrate two very different holidays, Purim and Passover. Both are occasions of joy—Purim the more playful, Passover the more purposeful. Yet there is perhaps an unsuspected connection between them: the gift of imagination.

In synagogues throughout the world, the reading of the Purim story is a communal event unlike any other, with children and adults alike dressing in costumes and assuming identities that, for at least a few hours, give free reign to fantasy. As a child in Tel Aviv, I remember that on one Purim I dressed as a traffic director, in my version of the uniform worn by the officer in the intersection, with white gloves to stop the cars or wave them through. This seemed to me a glamorous, even heroic role to play. Continue reading