In the past few months, my two preschoolers have been creating sticky, lumpy, imaginatively arranged collages, and I thought they might enjoy seeing how this technique is applied by a master. So I trucked them down to our town's new cathedral to creativity -- the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art -- to see Henri Matisse's cutouts.
My persistent efforts to teach art appreciation to five- year-old Emma and three-year-old Bryce really paid off: They both flopped down on the floor in front of a composition and shouted, "Look, Mom, we're the same shape!" There, under the amazed stares of gallery guards and passers-by, were two munchkin replicas of Matisse's marvelous squiggles.
The children passed from collage to collage, acting out those that seized their imagination. With a little prompting, they found colors ranging from cool (blues and greens) to hot (reds and oranges) and thought about why Matisse combined the two temperatures in his work.
This and other trips to Washington's rich pool of galleries have given our whole family a self-taught course in the basics of art. In the National Portrait Gallery, for instance, we learned a detective game to use with "people paintings." First, we survey the room's offerings for our favorite portrait; then we look for clues about that person's life. We ask ourselves about his clothes: Are they for work, or play? What kind of work did he do? Are there objects in the painting that tell us what the subject enjoyed, such as dogs? Books? Flowers?
We look through galleries for people we'd like to know, people we would want to avoid, children (Mary Cassatt's paintings are a favorite for this), people who look like our relatives, people we'd like to have in our family.
Then our acting skills come into play, without the floor flopping. We try to imitate the pictures: the sour expressions of 17th-century puritans, the astonished look of Rembrandt's self-portraits, the rubbery stance of Thomas Hart Benton's Depression folks.
We learned other nonthreatening approaches to art galleries in the Explore Gallery, a special room of the National Collection of Fine Arts. Designed for the child-at- heart, the room spells out essentials of line, color, and texture through its careful arrangement of sculptures, paintings, mobiles, and a popular ramp covered with multitextured squares of carpet. Even as babies, my children could pick out different textures whil crawling up this ramp, over bumpy rocks placed on the floor, and into a nook where soft pillows cradle tomorrow's artists.
As tots, they enjoyed searching the room for circles, squares, rectangles, and straight lines. For this last task, the room contains a Gene Davis stripe painting called "Red Witch." Older children who appreciate the way color reflects feelings like to act out this painting, prompted by questions like "What would it be like to be a stripe? You'd be thin, wouldn't you, and stiff, and stretched up very tall. Can you do that?"
An orderly pattern of giggly, straight children should appear. "OK, now make believe you're blue -- with blue toes, blue knees, blue hair, blue fingernails. How does that feel?" Each child can be assigned a color, and asked to move to that color's rhythm.
Old and young children alike home in on the room's stuffed birds and animals -- camouflaged, muted beasts -- and their flamboyant imitations in sculpture. Art proverbially imitates nature, and this visual, tactile comparison between fanciful and original versions of the animal kingdom gives children a springboard for exploring the artist's historic struggle with Mother Earth.
To get the comparison started, you can ask questions like "Which has more color, the real or the imitation? Do these animals usually live together? What do birds teach us, and why did the artist include them in the painting?"
Sometimes in our wanderings through galleries, we hit on a room where none of these games apply. Then we follow a kind of art appreciation technique recommended by Lincoln Steffens, the journalist, many years ago: We each pick out our favorite piece in the room and justify our decision. This way, we learn to study our choices, and I can see what my children are focusing on in a piece of art.
Sometimes they see only the practical ("I like this because the fruit looks yummy"); other times they find subtle aspects ("It's a Mommy and she's soft").
The more our family learns about art, the more our choices change and grow. Today's great love may be the gigantic mobile in the East Wing; tomorrow's may be a portrait of George Washington. Today the children may scramble on the floor at the sight of Matisse; tomorrow they may do quick charcoal sketches.
Through all, we are learning to be an active audience for our city's vital art collections -- to feel, to react, and even to look like the artists' creations.