Phoenix, dragon to lead kids to Asian art


To the historian of Asian art, it's a three-color glazed earthenware tomb sculpture from the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) that reflects the fabulous wealth of the emperors who grew rich from caravans plying the ancient Silk Road.

But to a kid seeing it for the first time, it's just a cool toy animal with funny humps on its back.

It's certainly a long way from the child's point of view to that of the serious scholar, museum curator or collector.

Yet art educators know there's a direct line that runs between the knowledgeable adult museumgoer and the youth whose first response to the camel was, "Gee whiz!"

More often than not, that initial enthusiasm provides the spark for what will later become a lifetime of appreciation for and involvement in the arts.

Connecting the dots is the job of people like Kathy Nusbaum, manager of children's and family programs at the Walters Art Museum. Nusbaum is overseeing the creation of the museum's new family guide for its Asian art collection, which she hopes will draw more parents and their children to visit the Walters' Hackerman House galleries -- and begin recruiting the next generation of visitors to the museum.

"The museum experience is totally different for parents with children than for regular adults," Nusbaum said in a recent interview. "Families don't want to spend a lot of time reading labels; for them, the experience is more about the interaction among family members. We want to make it easy, fun and rewarding for both the kids and their parents."

For museum educators like Nusbaum, it's far more important to launch kids and their parents on a journey of discovery than to convey dry facts and information.

"We want them to ask questions, make observations and in the process discover the art on their own," Nusbaum said. "Children don't really care what dynasty something is from; they want to know why is that camel blue and what's that thing on its back? We want to be able to appeal to many different types of learning styles."

So how does one translate the history and meaning of great art into simple terms that even a very young child can understand? Start by finding a gifted storyteller with the imagination of an artist and the intuitive understanding of how children learn that comes only from years of hard-earned experience in the classroom.

Enter Gilda Sharpe Etteh, a Massachusetts artist and teacher at English High School in Boston who is spending her internship at the Walters this summer re-creating the Asian art collection at Hackerman House as an experience for the whole family.

Follow the phoenix

Using some of the museum's most eye-catching objects as visual hooks, Etteh has concocted a colorful but historically faithful narrative in which magical beasts, suits of armor, giant pagodas and a fantastically shaped "scholar's rock" all play a role in opening a window on the past.

"In the guide I'm writing, I want to help people make personal connections to the art, because that's what makes it meaningful to them," Etteh said. "I also want to encourage them to reflect on their visit afterward and make further inquiries. All the questions and activities we suggest in the guide -- find a bird like the one you saw here, write a haiku poem or meditate at home -- allow one to do that."

Etteh's imaginative tour of the collection begins with the mythical phoenix that adorns the top of a mid-19th-century helmet worn by Japan's famed samurai warriors. Tradition-ally, the phoenix is a symbol of peace and prosperity, beloved by the emperor for her beauty and magical powers.

"In our tour, the phoenix flies from one object to the next at Hackerman House, introducing the children to various artworks in the collection," Etteh said. Before they can interpret the objects, the guide is written to give them a little background information about what each object is.

"Along the way, we talk about the symbolism of each piece -- for example, armor is also a symbol of power and status. We also ask questions that children can relate to, such as, 'Does this look like the costumes in the movie Star Wars?' Or, 'Why do you think an artist would put a very expensive gold sculpture on top of this helmet?' "

As the tour progresses, another important mythological creature makes its appearance: the dragon.

"He is the male force and he brings the rain," Etteh said. "The phoenix and the dragon are sometimes called partners or opposites -- male and female. Of course, the two of them also represent what's called yin and yang -- the opposing forces of the universe."

Understanding symbols

Etteh said that one of her goals is to help families recognize and interpret the layers of symbolism in Asian art as well as the decorative elements of line, color and pattern.

"Parents should be able to interpret the meaning of the art that the symbols convey for their children," she said. " For example, we have a beautiful wedding bowl decorated with fish and lotus blossoms on the side. The fish and lotus blooms symbolize happiness and love, so it only makes sense you would give this bowl as a wedding gift because you want the newlyweds to have lots of love and happiness."

Another vase on the tour depicts a rooster, a hen and a chick taking shelter under the leaves of the banana tree.

"It's a charming scene, but it's also saying that the rooster is protecting his family, that's an important male role. The banana tree is also a symbol of self-education."

During her research for the family guide, Etteh became particularly fascinated by the ornamental rocks that adorned the desks of scholars as an aid to meditation. The fantastic shapes of these objects worn by erosion and other natural processes have a complex relation to Asian art and philosophy.

The rock's unusual shape "gives rise to the notion of nature as an artist and creative power," Etteh said. "In Christian thought, we think of God as the creator, but in Asian philosophy, it's nature that is the creator, the artist.

"The scholar's rock also embodies the idea of worlds within worlds, because within the holes and shapes of each stone you can see other shapes -- a bird, a person, a mask. So we ask the children what they can see there. The shapes are always changing, too, so what I see in the rock will be different from what you see. The rock can be a great motivator of perception."

If that seems a little mystical, it's part of the natural, almost imperceptible evolution in the way families guided through Etteh's tour come to think about the art they see. It's one of her strategies to make the art come alive for children of all ages.

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