Little artists show no small amount of inspiration

Exhibit: Child care center plays with the idea that 4-year-olds know creativity when they see it.

January 22, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Take note, aspiring artistes. It's not about the glamour. It's (mostly) not about the money. It's not about acclaim. It's about the work.

The exhibition evinces the idea.

Ascend the flight of creaky steps that lead to The Playroom Gallery in downtown Baltimore; pass beneath the bubble-wrap canopy spattered in tempura reds and blues. View the matted sketches -- Lawrence Suh's effulgent green "Hermit Crab," its "C" insouciantly backward, or Sophia Neiman's cloudy "Titanic" -- evenly spaced along the walls as you climb. At the summit, behold the unnamed snowman: a ghostlike figure of white construction paper, three orange blotches limning two eyes and a nose. "Nobody knows who made that one," whispers Petra McGovern, co-curator of the display. "I can't tell you why, but they seem to like it that way."

The artistic collective to which she refers is the class of 4-year-olds McGovern and Courtney Gardner co-instruct at the Downtown Baltimore Child Care Center, the 17-year-old school putting on this evening's one-night-only wine- and-cheese extravaganza.

"My mommy's going to be here," says Mara Mordecai, creator of three of the exhibition's works, in a voice as bright as her green-and-gold computer sketch. "Her name is Mindy. My daddy's name is Monte. Mommy's bringing bubbly for the children."

While the 4-year-olds -- many of whom will have been at the Center for 12-plus hours by exhibit's end -- sip their sparkling cider and vent their energies, parents and teachers will mingle among 81 individually and jointly created works in what is normally the playroom for the "Upstairs Fours." The artists have fashioned those works from materials as diverse as tile, masking tape, cardboard cones and Legos, and from found objects ranging from a defunct television set to a chair with a delightfully removable seat. "Some of the work is a little interactive," says Gardner with a laugh.

The art has emerged naturally from the group's daily free-play time, during which students can assemble art works in an atmosphere free of adult instruction. "We just supply the materials," says Gardner. "We want children to learn how to think. What better way than giving them the chance to express themselves freely? We firmly believe that here."

The non-system works. The general effect is one of an enveloping brightness, a multi-textured luminosity that enlivens the space. Of particular interest is a series by Jesse Perkins -- including "Eggs," "Oatmeal" and "Pizza" -- that centers on the theme of food. In one set of pieces, ceramic tile, sprinkled whimsically with silver glitter, evokes Kellogg's Pop Tarts. "We do a lot of cooking here," says Gardner, "and Jesse's favorite show to watch at home is `The Essence of Emeril.' Once he even said we ought to `kick the color up a notch.' "

Across the room, Nathaniel Durfee's abstract rendition of his own name, in green tempura, suggests striking hieroglyphs, and in the stairwell, Suh's "What Is A Mango?" fetishizes in minimalist red a story the teachers had just read the class. "He did it in the dark, during nap time," marvels McGovern.

The artists were not completely free of commercial interest. Each was asked to price every piece, and connoisseurs can purchase works for amounts ranging from two cents to "a lot of dollars," from "24 quarters" to $5,100. Prices are negotiable, says Gardner, but all proceeds will benefit the Upstairs Fours.

Neiman's work, however, will not enrich that cause; she has already learned -- perhaps due to the unstructured quality of her schooling -- the priceless nature of art. "I could never bear to part with my work," she has told her curators. Hers are the only pieces in the exhibition labeled "NFS": Not for sale.

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