If you want to put a little spark into your child's eyes, put him or her in front of the television this afternoon at 5. That's right, the boob tube.
That's when Maryland Public Broadcasting and other public stations across the country (excluding WETA-Channel 26) will begin airing "The Secret City," a 13-week, Monday through Friday series that will teach your child to draw (for area listings, see box below). By the end of the first show, promises host Mark Kistler, your kid will be doodling like there's no tomorrow.
There's a simple message to all this: Anyone can learn how to draw. While the program is aimed at the 6- to 12-year-old crowd, aspiring parents might want to make surreptitous scrawls behind their kiddies' backs. Drawing, says Kistler (albeit another good-news man from California), is for "anyone, from kindergarten to 110 years old." That should cover most chickens.
The viewer will not be barraged with difficult Leonardo da Vinci sketches, intricate details from the Mona Lisa or yawn-inducing rules of perspective, but rather how to draw spaceships, observatories, shooting stars and 3-D mazes. And Kistler isn't some professorial figure: He is Commander Mark, a sort-of Captain Kirk of etching. He also has a cast of otherworldly characters at his side, such as Cindy the Dragon (only Commander Mark understands her "Dragonese" language), Zebtron the Humanoid and MetaMan.
It's a chance to be Buck Rogers with a pencil. The excitement over the fantasy worlds of "Star Wars" and its imitations, which seems inherent in every child, might be the impetus needed to maintain a prolonged interest in the show and, ultimately, in drawing.
Other elements to keep the kids tuning in: guest animators, guest child artists, the creation of a club (the Secret City Club, of course), the opportunity for the child to create his or her own fantasy world and the Seven Magic Words of drawing, which Kistler will introduce throughout the series.
"I predict a drawing mania" nationwide after this program is introduced, says Kistler, a roving, drawing teacher at recreation centers and elementary schools throughout California, who estimates he has taught approximately 250,000 kids how to draw. "I stand there and have 600 children watch me draw on an overhead projector. In an hour I can build up their confidence.
"There has never been anyone saying children really can learn how to draw. All it takes is a pencil and paper and the attitude 'I can do it.'
" In the show I'll take them through step by step . . . I'll show how kids can create their own Secret City, where kids can draw with control and confidence, build self-esteem and blast across that piece of paper."
The Secret City fare is unlimited and doesn't have to focus on outer space, Kistler, 22, stresses. Children can do whatever they wish on their own projects. "Children can take an adventure with that pencil. They can put trees on the moon, water. I encourage them to add extra things, to change or start from scratch. It's their creation."
Kistler saw a need for this type of show, he says, after the severe cutbacks for art education that have taken place over recent years, at federal, state and local government levels. While teaching in California, Kistler made a videotape on his own for teaching drawing, but soon realized, "I needed national distribution." He approached Children's Video Associates, which produces the show, and they came up with the format.
"I really believe drawing is a crucial point of academic development and, from a creative standpoint, learning to draw enables kids to express what they're thinking. It teaches them to learn what things look like, how they work, how they fit together. It's just as important as the three Rs.
"I'd like to see drawing not being an elective but at least one of the generic academic subjects students should take."
The Commander Mark idea, he says, was a way to get children excited over the subject. "We Kistler and Children's Video Associates were sitting around, wondering what kind of figure can bring the excitement we decided was personable. 'Commander Mark' had that super-hero quality of a kid's idea of who would be in charge of the Secret City."
Producing the show has been "real fun," he says. The show is being shot in cooperation with Maryland Public Television at MPT's Owings Mills studio.
After the first show, says Kistler, "Kids will come away with a fistful of excellent drawings, and with the biggest grin in the world. They'll have confidence they can draw. And if they watch again the next day, they'll learn how to draw even better."