San Francisco children explore artistic careers first hand

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In an enclosed garden on a hillside in San Francisco, a group of excited fourth and fifth graders is getting an unusual lesson in what it means to be an artist. Sculptor Ruth Asawa and her son Paul Lanier are demonstrating their art as they mold a giant clay head of actor and football star O.J. Simpson.

All eyes are agog as mother and son work the golden clay and then spray the surface with a coat of acetone. Afterward the children head down a stone path into Ms. Asawa's glass and redwood studio, where they peek in on the other giant clay heads of San Francisco celebrities that are part of the sculptor's latest project.

Later, after they have seen and heard about a variety of objects created on the premises, a girl with red braids asks Ms. Asawa when she first decided to become an artist.

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Wiping her hands on her already clay-dusted jeans, the Japanese-American sculptor, whose outdoor works are as much a part of San Francisco as cable cars and Coit Tower, replies, ''When I was about your age. Becoming an artist is something that takes a whole lifetime.''

Because of Ruth Asawa and a program she was instrumental in founding 14 years ago, the Alvarado Arts Workshop, schoolchildren throughout San Francisco have a unique opportunity to learn at an early age what becoming an artist is all about. Over the years the workshop has brought an array of professional artists -- dancers, poets, actors, musicians, and painters into 80 percent of the local public schools.

Just a few blocks away from Ruth Asawa's studio and home is Alvarado School, the place where it all began. In the summer of 1968 she and a neighbor, art historian Sally Woodbridge, started a program in which children worked with the sculptor in the school cafeteria to make figures of baker's clay.

The project was such a success that the two women had little trouble getting enough school and community support to make it a part of the regular academic year. From that small beginning came enthusiastic endorsement of the city school board. The result has been a flowering of arts programs in the public schools.

Each year the Alvarado Arts Workshop hires a variety of professionals to work as artists-in-residence at participating schools. ''An artist is assigned to one school for awhile, and then moves on to another,'' says program director Jane Bretthauer. ''Sometimes the artist works directly in the classroom with the teacher, and at other times works in an after-school session. Principals, teachers, and artists work out the best schedule for their particular situation.''

Besides allowing children to express themselves in a myriad of artistic forms that include adorning their schools with murals and other embellishments, the program also teaches them about the practical side of being an artist. ''The program has a structured format in order to show children the discipline needed for art,''says Ms. Bretthauer. ''And because the students are taught by established working artists, they are coming into contact with those who make their living from art.''

That art has its business as well as creative side is the focus of the latest Alvarado Arts Workshop project. On the fourth floor of the Emporium-Capwell department store in downtown San Francisco is a charming gallery called Schoolworks Unlimited, an area where the arts and crafts created by the students is for sale. When an object is sold, about 25 percent of the proceeds go to the artist, and the balance goes back into the program itself.

The gallery is one way the Alvarado Arts Workshop is trying to lessen its dependence on funds from the school board, state and federal grants, and private donations -- sources of uncertain supply these days. Another means to the same end is the holding of special celebrations, such as one last February called Ruth Asawa Day, commemorating the tenth birthday of the sculptor's fountain in front of the Hyatt Hotel on Union Square.

Gracing one of San Francisco's busiest corners, the circular, unsigned fountain is actually the work of the parents, teachers, students, and principals in the program as well as Ms. Asawa. Sculptured out of baker's clay, the fountain is covered with fanciful renditions of the city's landmarks. On Ruth Asawa Day the area surrounding the fountain held thousands of spectators watching a variety of student entertainment. At day's end, from coins tossed in the fountain and other contributions, the arts workshop netted $2,200.

Over the years Ruth Asawa has stayed deeply involved in the program she started. President of its board of directors, she continues to teach sculpture in the schools and give students an inside look at her own artistic life. ''I originally got into this because I am the mother of six children,'' she says. ''I didn't like the quality of the arts education they were getting, and I felt a responsibility toward doing something about it.''

Whether or not the children in the program go on to be professional artists, she feels that what they learn will be of value. ''What we are really interested in doing is developing individuals who can look at the world in a fresh and original way,'' she says. ''It's terribly exciting to see a child experience color and form for the first time. We want to keep that sensation alive throughout his life.''

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