STAND AROUND any gallery of contemporary art long enough, and you're bound to hear some disdainful soul exclaim, "My preschooler could have painted that!"
If they were old enough to process that remark, Sahara, Max, Nia and all the rest of the students at the Children's Studio School might very well raise up their paintbrushes in protest -- or laugh knowingly at the truth embedded in those words. Aged 2 through 6, these tiny artists gather each weekday in their Mount Pleasant atelier to create immense junk sculptures and carefully wrought paintings, to dance and to act out dramatic situations devised with the help of devoted artists/teachers.
These are not prodigies or pampered tots. Many of them come from lower-income families; most are Hispanic or black. The majority of parents look at the Studio School as day care, pure and simple. The fact that the creative process begins before 9 in the morning and keeps on until 5:30 -- and is as much a part of these kids' lives as food, or sleep, or even TV -- is something of a secret shared by staff, several enlightened families and the occasional visitor, not to mention a growing number of more mature artistic spirits and gallery folk.
"What's exciting about this place is that not only the children but the adult artists grow and benefit so much from the interaction," says Marcia McDonnell, founder and director of the Studio School. Those "adult artists" include two of Washington's most celebrated painters, Sam Gilliam and Gene Davis, both of whom have collaborated with the children on intensive projects. In addition, the school has exhibited at the Phillips Collection, the Washington Project for the Arts and the District Building. Last Sunday the kids took part in the WPA's Open Studio Tour, and this Sunday the Georgetown Artists' Space will hold a "Dress as Your Favorite Picasso Painting Birthday Party Benefit" for the school, to be followed by a week-long exhibit of the youngsters' latest creations.
Anybody who pictures the place as some tranquil munchkin-land has never spent a minute with a child of preschool age. Walk through the second-floor entrance of St. Stephen's Church, and you're sucked into a world of exquisite chaos. Every wall, piece of furniture, costume and prop has been painted an emphatic purple or aqua or crimson. Huge, patterned banners (Gilliam had a hand in those) fly from the ceiling. In the middle of the room three small boys are dragging about life-size silhouettes they've fashioned from brown paper. Over in the painting area, an awesomely calm teacher named Beverly guides a group of seven miniature Rembrandts through a project involving pencils, rulers, crayons, tempera and concentration galore.
"Look at how many blue-greens I mixed!" exults 6-year-old Jerome to her pal Sahara. Despite the fact that these two have allowed their brushwork to extend to each others' faces, and that Jerome has spilled a big cup of red paint on her shoe, their easels hold vibrant, disciplined works. Beverly has taught them to stay within the ruled lines they've drawn, to cover the entire piece of paper, to rid their brushes of excess paint. The kids even understand the value of putting aside an unfinished piece and starting again the next day.
The spirit of Stanislavski reigns in the drama room, where the ongoing daytime story "A Little About Wolves" is about to unfold.
"What happens when I say, 'Begin'?" asks Susan Jerone, teacher and fellow actor.
"We don't use our names and we turn into campers and wolves," says Lul, a tiny Ethiopian beauty who, in her excitement, has already begun to exhibit lupine mannerisms. Jerone gives the signal, and the action ensues. The campers snooze in their invisible sleeping bags, while the growling wolf pack leaves its lair -- a pillow-covered bench -- to hunt for food. The exercise ends with the animals feasting on bones that the frightened campers have thrown them in desperation. Tune in next time.
The children scatter about the room. Some of them turn somersaults, others play with blocks, but Lul heads for the drawing table. Soon, wolves of all varieties, carefully and fancifully rendered, cover her paper.
For some people, a child hasn't really developed until he can recite his ABCs. Observing Lul and her Studio schoolmates, one realizes that learning can be sparked in other ways -- by drawing, dancing, even impersonating a hungry wolf.