LA Teens Weave Their Own Stories into the American Fabric

I’m the artistic director of artworxLA, a nonprofit arts organization that combats the high school dropout crisis by re-engaging students in their high school education through long-term sequential arts programming. Formerly called the HeArt Project, artworxLA has spent the last twenty-two years bringing professional artists into continuation and alternative high school classrooms to inspire students to embrace their own creativity, challenge their preconceived notions, and create a space for their creative voices. Our success as an organization rides on the amazing artists that live and work in Los Angeles and the fabulous cultural institutions with which we partner every year.

This school year we partnered with the Skirball Cultural Center. Inspired by objects in the Skirball’s core exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, 550 students were invited to explore their identities as individuals and community members and to draw parallels to the American Jewish experience. Over the course of ten weeks, students from twenty-five schools worked with teaching artists to explore the immigrant experience across cultures, connect the past to the present, and celebrate their unique American identities as a collection of cultures and heritages. For a minimum of two hours each week, students, teaching artists, and workshop coordinators diligently collaborated to find a creative pathway to explore these concepts. The resulting projects included performance pieces, music mash-ups, short films, poems, and visual artworks.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Each of the three series of ten-week workshops culminated with a public presentation at the Skirball, where students presented their artwork to one another and to members of the community. Continue reading

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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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Students “Re-Create” the United States

Creativity. Interpretation. Argument. Collaboration. These were just some of the skills utilized by our nation’s founders as they haggled, debated, and compromised their way to the formation of the American republic. The exhibition Creating the United States explores the work of the founders and their struggle to create a nation according to the principles of a free society and a populace with the power to govern itself. Working together, setting aside differences, and considering the future played key roles in establishing the country we now know.

Exploring similar processes is at the heart of the work of students at Granada Hills Charter High School who are participating in the Skirball’s 2012 In-School Residency, “Re-Creating the United States.” Working with Otis School of Art and Design faculty members Patty Kovic and Michele Jaquis, directors of the award-winning NEIGHBORGAPBRIDGE interdisciplinary design course, the students are thinking about how to communicate the relevancy of these skills and ideas to Skirball visitors. Continue reading

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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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Partnering with Strong Women: It’s Enough to Make a Girl Dance

Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.

While many of my Education department colleagues spend their days enamored with smiling young children or playing with families aboard Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, my job here involves a far surlier crowd: TEENAGERS. [They’re a demographic that puzzles many—so much so that the Skirball recently offered a “Teenagers: Wonder Years or Worry Years” parenting workshop for moms and dads needing some guidance.]

In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

This past year’s residency focused on the topic of empowering women and girls worldwide as explored in the recent Skirball exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Working with renowned choreographer Robin Conrad, six members of the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM) Drill Team developed a dance performance based on their visit to the exhibition. They also went on a field trip to serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), one of the Skirball’s many community partners, which provides housing and support for the city’s ever-growing population of homeless women. Continue reading

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Connecting (and Coloring) the Dots

This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the sixty million girls and women who are “missing”  from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.

This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the tragic fact that sixty million girls and women are “missing” from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.

Inside the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, one wall of the gallery is covered with dots—20,000 of them, give or take a few. Each one measures about an inch in diameter, a thin blue line rounding an empty center. Over time visitors have filled in the white circles, transforming the mostly blank space into a field of tenderly hand-colored dots.

The 20,000 are meant to represent, if only in part, the sixty million girls and women estimated to be “missing” worldwide because of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, or gender-specific abuse or neglect—or what an article in The Economist calls “gendercide” (the article also increases the estimate to 100 million). It’s a startling, sobering figure. While standing before this giant display of thousands upon thousands of dots, visitors are invited to take a moment and color in a circle in honor of a life lost.

A young middle-schooler, B.J. Dare, who toured the exhibition as part of a recent school field trip, colored in more than a dot or two, then chose to share the experience with online reading and writing community Figment. We stumbled upon it late last week, and we were moved. Here’s an excerpt of B.J.’s composition “A Trip to the Skirball”:

I colored and colored and colored and colored. Every dot was a new color, some were multi-color. For each dot, I felt like I was trying to help, or give support, somehow. Continue reading

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Making Sure the Kids Are Alright

The Skirball is full of parents. I see them pushing strollers, picking up sippy cups, and chaperoning elementary school groups. But I have a hunch that another set of parents is lurking in the shadows. They are the mothers and fathers of teenagers. They probably try not to go anywhere with their kids who are between the ages of twelve and eighteen.

Primetime hit Modern Family illustrates the highs and lows of raising kids. When Haley brings home her boyfriend, parents Phil and Claire straddle the fine line between playing cool and protecting their daughter. Moms and dads are welcome to bring real-life scenarios like this one to our upcoming seminar on parenting teens.

Our society focuses on teens in many funny and entertaining ways. Even though I am well beyond parenting a teenager, one of my favorite comic strips is Zits, which follows the adolescent adventures of a high school freshman and would-be musician named Jeremy. Creators Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman totally get the joys and challenges of being a teen and parenting a teen. Teens are also the focus of many popular TV shows, including Modern Family, Parenthood, and Gossip Girl. We have seen children grow up on television—the best example being The Wonder Years, in my opinion—while Lisa and Bart Simpson remain perpetual pre-teens.

On a more serious note, the October cover story of National Geographic was entitled The New Science of the Teenage Brain, which offered great insight on the “impulsive, moody, maddening” behavior of a typical teen. Meanwhile, in its January 26 “The Saturday Essay,” The Wall Street Journal published What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind?. This much-commented-upon (and highly tweeted) article noted that “children today reach puberty earlier and adulthood later. The result: A lot of teenage weirdness.” Oh my! Continue reading

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