YOU DON'T often find art gallery exhibitions devoted to themes like family game nights, holiday celebrations and school field trips. But works featuring these and other playful, childlike subjects now greet visitors to the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
"Bridging Communities," a mixed-media show, includes 51 works by D.C. elementary school students. On view in the Education Resource Center right behind the museum's information desk, the colorful installation displays interpretations of community by third-graders at Thompson Elementary School and fifth-graders at Oyster Elementary School. As an added bonus, visitors can participate in related activities suitable for all ages at a table in the center of the cozy gallery. (Drop-in, guided family tours on Sundays feature additional things to do.)
The exhibition is the culmination of a museum-school collaboration designed "to provide young people an opportunity to feel part of a museum environment," says Lisa Madeira, manager of youth programs. Madeira visited the nearby schools' classrooms and used activities like storytelling and role playing to help students explore the concept of community. Before embarking on their individual projects, the children toured the museum to view such works as Jennie Augusta Brownscombe's "Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Lois Mailou Jones's "Homage to Martin Luther King" and narrative quilts crafted by rural Indian women. Then they designed their own creations using paper, fabric, paint, wire, yarn and other materials.
Our family's visit to the exhibit on a recent Saturday afternoon offered an entertaining and inspirational break from the relentless humidity outside. Husband Steve and 10-year-old daughter Rachel headed straight for the activities table, where decks of playing cards and a game of checkers beckoned. Meanwhile, 6 1/2-year-old Anna and I worked our way around the room, enjoying the variety of topics and styles and searching for examples of familiar events.
A description in the young artist's own words accompanies each piece, and a few enlarged quotes pulled from the children's writings point out common themes in a grouping.
"Family gatherings are an important part of my tradition," writes Lai Lin Robinson, whose cut-paper picture depicts a July Fourth celebration, complete with fireworks over the Washington Monument. Family shows up in a lot of the pieces, such as Alicia Keesler's serene watercolor portrait of her family's annual trip to the beach to watch the sun set. Many works show ways that families help out in their communities. Artificial flowers hang out of the pots in Dayana Moran's "Welcome," a painting on cloth that describes her family's tradition of giving plants to new neighbors.
The students' diversity shines through in works that focus on their ethnic backgrounds. "By drawing the community I am from, I am reminded of where I was born and my cultural traditions," writes Nabila Jelbaovi, whose papier-mache and felt work depicts a Moroccan village.
Other students' definitions of community focus on sports, school and world unity. "The earth is not only where you live," writes David Nun~ez, "but one entire community of people living together." His three-dimensional papier-mache sculpture includes a mask and two hands, one of which holds an earth-like sphere.
Not every work displayed here paints a rosy picture of "community." Juan Paz's "Faces" consists of a simple mask, painted black.
"My face is dark because my neighborhood is dangerous and sometimes I don't recognize every face," he says.
After looking at each work of art -- and reading about most -- Anna and I checked out the activities while Rachel and her dad perused the gallery. Anna sketched a picture of a checkers game, using paper and colored pencils provided for visitors who wish to illustrate their own concepts of community. I read aloud Cynthia Rylant's wacky "The Relatives Came," then leafed through other picture books with such exhibit-related themes as birthday celebrations, family traditions, bridges and cooperation between neighbors.
We also spent a few minutes studying the photographs that frame the room's doorway after Anna discovered that the smiling children pictured are the artists with their works in progress. The girls and I enjoyed finding the faces behind some of our favorite creations.
After spending 40 minutes or so in the gallery, we wandered through the rest of the museum. After a docent's recommendation, we checked out a special exhibition featuring child-like paintings, eerie dolls and sculptures (made of chewed gum!) by self-taught folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe. Despite the opinions of educated critics, we all found the exhibit more weird than whimsical and unanimously preferred the schoolchildren's works.
Before leaving, we stopped again in the Education Resource Center to let Anna add her comments to a guest book filled with kudos for the imaginative students.
Later, Rachel said she'd like to see the show include works from additional schools in a variety of communities, so that she could compare the students' varying experiences. She just may get her wish: Madeira says "Bridging Communities" will be an annual summer exhibition, possibly featuring different schools each year.
BRIDGING COMMUNITIES -- Through Sept. 19 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW (Metro: Metro Center). 202/783-5000. Web site: www.nmwa.org. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 Sundays. Admission is free, but suggested donation is $3 for adults, $2 for students and seniors. The museum has a cafe (open from 11:30 to 2:30 Monday through Saturday) and gift shop, which carries a few children's books and craft items. Ask at the front desk for a free copy of "Artventure," a museum guide for kids. Drop-in, interactive family tours for ages 6 to 12 and their parents take place at 2 every Sunday in August. Docents guide visitors through "Bridging Communities," "The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do" and works in the permanent collection. Tours include drawing and writing activities.