Artist designs sturdy 'sculpture' playhouses for children

Fantasy constructions. That's the way New York artist Betty Klavun describes her "sculpture" playhouses that invite and delight swarms of children. Her purpose, she says, is to give youngsters a play place of their own that they can climb up, walk through, perform on, or hide in or under. She believes a playhouse should intrigue the imagination, spur creativity, and suggest improvised adventure games such as the King of the Castle and the Fort and the Moat.

Her own three grandchildren, a constant source of inspiration to her, love to seek out the playhouse she built on the roof of her own brownstone home and studio and to pretend they are princes and princesses, heroes and heroines. Sometimes, too, like most children, they just search out an odd corner of the playhouse in which to find a moment of quiet when they can dream their own dreams.

"We hustle our children into too much group thinking and behavior," this well-known sculptor explains, "instead of appreciating the highly original experience that can grow out of exercising their own imaginations."

So a few years ago Mrs. Klavun, whose indoor and outdoor sculpture has been exhibited in both solo and group shows at many galleries, museums, and schools around the country, decided to challenge some of the more conventional approaches to play and performance structures in parks and playgrounds. The usual jungle gyms and other modern metal equipment struck her as cold, heartless , sometimes even dangerous.

Having studied stage design at Bennington College and having worked intermittently as a stage and costume designer, she began to think in imaginative stage-set terms as a new approach to playhouses. She decided then that she could "sculpture" a playhouse in intricate but simple and dynamic forms that could be both aesthetic and practical.

She first assembled a bleacherlike outdoor sculpture for an exhibition at ArtPark near Niagara Falls, N.Y. Later, after donating it to the children at a psychiatric center in New York City, she discovered two encouraging things. One was that before the playhouse was even finished, children began to climb up on it, to dance and posture, and to leap about with abandon. They instantly sensed its possibilities.

They also asked to help in its construction and were soon mixing concrete, digging holes, lugging wood around, and banging in nails. They used the fantasy structure so enthusiastically that Mrs. Klavun had to modify and strengthen its design to make it practically "bombproof as well as kidproof."

She saw that children tend to help protect what they help to build. "We'll take care of it," a proud teen-ager assured her, after also being allowed to help decorate the house with his own can of paint and his own brand of squiggles and swirls.

As a result of a grant from the Indianapolis Plumbstock Fund Mrs. Klavun designed and helped make her "Manhattan Tree House," which opened at the Manhattan Laboratory Museum last October. Others of her sculptured playhouses have been shown at children's museums in Pennsylvania and in Florida.

A few weeks ago Betty Klavun met with residents of the bleak South Bronx area of New York and with members of the Housing Authority to inspect her models of two playhouses. These will be funded by HUD, she hopes, and built with the help of the children and adult members of the community. The construction will provide both an educational experience for the children and a local art project for the entire neighborhood.

One, a clubhouse for children from eight to 12, has stairs, ramps, tents, and small odd-shaped structures. It looks a bit like a ship in full sail. The imagination of children can turn it into anything, anywhere.

Materials for both the clubhouse and the day-care center (with its villagelike assemblage of small huts, towers, slides, sandboxes, two small stages, and planters with surrounding seats) are three-quarter-inch plywood covered with sheet metal and painted. Roofs of both structures will be corrugated fiberglass. Mrs. Klavun says the cost of both the offbeat sculpture playhouses will be about $3,000.

The artist has also been asked to consider designing an outdoor action space at the New York Museum of Natural History. She would like to see park systems become more interested in her ideas for making (again with community helpers) amphitheaters in vacant lots and parks. This can be done by simply using earthmoving equipment to rough out the arenas and then showing people how to form the stones and rubble and dirt into natural circular seating arrangements, with flowers and vegetables tucked in.

"I think people should participate in everything, especially sculpture. Sculpture like this isn't complete without people. They make it come alive." At present, this artist's new direction is merely a straw in the wind. But she sees it as a significant straw.

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