Oberlin, Ohio — ``Look at these faces!'' urged Audrey Pearson, pointing toward the wall at the framed origami work of her son, Jason. ``It's so extraordinary that such simple, geometric configurations can communicate an absolute likeness. There's no doubt as who these people are. And there are so few shapes, basically.'' As we walked through their home, Audrey also pointed out a framed photo of a Japanese high school class arrayed in rows of blue uniforms, with cherry blossoms in the background. One blond head stood out. It belonged to Jason, who last year decided to live in Japan.
``I thought it took incredible guts,'' says his father, John, in his pleasant Yorkshire inflection. ``I mean, he's only 16.''
Another photo shows Jason holding an umbrella and already looking a little Japanese in his attitude. ``Origami introduced him to the Japanese culture,'' Audrey explains. ``He's uncertain as to what his choice of involvement will be in life,'' she says, ``and the whole notion of their gardens -- the balance, the beauty -- attracted him. He liked the kind of protocol the Japanese mentality seemed to project. And Japanese architecture. He knew the Japanese were very advanced technologically and he's interested in that -- he's very good at mathematics.''
Such comments reflect the independence, human and artistic insight, common sense, and mutual respect so abundant in the Pearson family, which fairly hums with creative energy and where concept and practice live in vibrant harmony.
John, a nationally recognized artist, is chairman of the Oberlin College art department. His wife, whose professional name is Audrey Skuodas, is herself a talented and productive painter, originally from Lithuania. She and her family were displaced persons after World War II and then lived in Germany.
Their other child is 14-year-old Cadence, ballet student and recreational artist, who lives at home in the family's century-old brown-and-tan house with its spacious veranda on the front and sides. It sits on a tranquil tree-lined street a few blocks from Oberlin, allowing John to bike to his classes in a life style that is almost a stereotype of an academic idyll.
Inside, the house bears remarkable record to the skill of the parents and to the talents of the children as they developed over the years. Besides paintings, carefully framed examples of the children's work cover much of the walls, chosen by the loving but professional eyes of John and Audrey. And among the rich bounty of other beautifully displayed objects are creatively constructed doll houses, shelves of dolls, a whole collection of mechanical figures, plus toys and other items conceived and made by the parents to enrich the lives and spirits of the children.
``We're accumulators, not collectors,'' admits John about the physical environment that help nurture the creativity of Cadence and Jason. ``These things are not necessarily great works of art, or the best or the first or the most significant. They were just things that we love.''
When the family made Christmas presents for each other, they would sit together -- a little cottage industry -- but wouldn't let each other see what was being worked on until the day itself. The seasonal cries of ``Don't look!'' still ring in John's memory.
As Jason and Cadence became aware of their surroundings, ``we never said don't touch, you're going to break it,'' John points out. ``Whenever there was any interest shown we would give them the thing, let them look at it, feel it, understand it.''
``If there were just a method of imparting this information to parents,'' says Audrey with an urgency born of lifelong experience, ``to please provide their children with pencils, paper, building blocks -- anything. I remember buying old construction blocks when Cadence was two or so, and the things she could create with just these rudimentary objects!''
``It's not a matter of just providing the materials,'' John observes. ``It's being sure not to demean that activity, which often happens unintentionally in families. It's providing an ambiance...''
``...and noticing,'' Audrey picks up, ``when they've come to a stumbling block and then helping see them through it, and thinking about at what stage of development they are.''
In the case of Cadence and Jason, this kind of nurturing has resulted in two very different approaches to creativity.
``Jason is what most people would consider a much more competent draftsman,'' Audrey notes. ``He has the capacity to render things very meticulously. But I found it rather boring. I didn't want him to lose himself, his creative aspect. I would say, `It's controlling you rather than you controlling it.'''
Cadence, on the other hand, ``has the capacity to go overboard in the other direction,'' Audrey continues. ``She's very creative, but recently she has started to try to draw things realistically, and I would say to her, `If you lose your creative spirit, this is going to be just another realistic drawing.'''
Yet this drive for realism has a broad and crucial meaning for a child's life, according to John, and it must be handled carefully. ``That kind of skill gives them a feeling of control over their world,'' he says.
An example of Audrey's figurative work hit me in the eye as we walked into their dining room -- where Cadence joined us -- and sat down at a long oak table. It was a very large canvas whose main feature was a woman who seemed to fix her gaze on me. The lady in the picture dominated the room as I began asking Audrey how she went about encouraging, in her children, the kind of talent so visible on that canvas.
``By responding, always, to their work,'' she answered. ``I got very excited about their efforts, because it was a display of the kind of energy that I think artists are always trying to recapture in themselves. And here it was, fresh and alive!''
Cadence remembers her mother's approach. ``Whenever I made something, they always went crazy over it, even if was something stupid,'' she says. ``Sometimes I wanted them to be critical. I wanted them to tell me if they didn't like it.''
Did this make it hard for her to tell when she was successful and when she wasn't? ``Not really, because I sort of knew inside of myself what I thought was good, and I'' -- a pause -- ``I didn't really listen to what they said.''
The family all roared at this admission, and then Cadence went on to explain how, actually, her talents thrived under parents' guidance.
``Cadence also has a tremendous dedication for ballet,'' her father observes, ``and that's a very classic art form. She sacrifices a tremendous amount of social life, because at the same time she's held a very high educational standard for herself, and that comes much harder for her than it did for Jason.''
As if on cue, Cadence excused herself: It was time for homework.
``She'll graduate from high school in three instead of four years,'' John says ``so that she'll have a year before college she can devote to ballet, and maybe train with some company in Europe or here. She's thought it through and she knows what the problems are. And we will encourage her no matter what.''
Audrey adds: ``But she doesn't want to become like some of these girls she sees who know it's hopeless for them and yet they're 22 years old and still doing it.''
That's unlikely to happen in the Pearson household, where hard-headed common sense runs parallel with artistic sensitivity.
``We would never allow our children to create fantasies about themselves or about life,'' John asserts. ``They have to to know what the stakes are. We're very honest with them and don't try to protect them from the reality. It's painful and it hurts sometimes.''
Yet once a realistic view is established, John says, a young person cannot decide such question with his head alone.
``One of the things I tell all my students at Oberlin,'' he says, ``is that if you follow where your heart leads -- whether it's into physics, art, whatever -- you'll gain a tremendous [sense] of happiness from it, and if you're happy you'll work hard and chances are you'll be successful.''
It's when one is too concerned with economic security ``and sacrifices that happiness for security, that one starts to get into trouble.''
``We wouldn't choose the arts for our children as an occupation,'' says Audrey, ``and yet I can't think of anything I'd rather be in, because it's so rewarding. There is a fount of energy that one can always draw on.''