OUR 3-MONTH-OLD SON, Shane, is teaching us about art. The colorful quilt Grandma made for him hangs next to his changing table, and his eyes light up and lock onto it as soon as he spots it, his chubby little hands reaching for the blocks of color. This fascination with the squares of brightly hued cloth is actually the same sense that older folks have when they appreciate abstract art, we're told. And that's a pleasure many of us lose as we leave childhood behind, according to international art superstar Sean Scully.
Scully, the Dublin-born painter whose work is the subject of a major exhibition at the Phillips Collection, is pleased that the museum is making his paintings accessible to children and families with two special events, one Saturday morning and one late next month.
Inspired by his visits to ancient Mayan ruins in Mexico, these oil paintings, watercolors, pastels and aquatints feature blocks of color evoking the play of light on ancient walls, building surfaces and textures. They stress only two formal elements -- the vertical and the horizontal -- much like Shane's beloved quilt.
"My paintings are very popular with children," Scully said, seated on a bench in front of several of his wall-size works at the Phillips. "Children are very insightful; they can see the movement because they're not blocked yet. They're wide open. They see the paintings, the colors and the proportions, and the way things are shifting around. Many people eventually lose that openness and then have to study art and art history to be able to appreciate abstract work."
That appreciation is something the Phillips, where visitors find a wide range of impressionist and modern art, aims to keep alive in children. During Saturday's before-hours event, "Bricks, Bars and Bands of Color: How to Build a Painting Like Sean Scully!," children ages 6 to 10 and their parents can learn about the artist's use of lines, shapes, colors and patterns, and how these elements create works of art. The youngsters will handle felt boards, fabrics and materials similar to those used by Scully to help them understand the artist's "tool kit" so they can create their own patterns that provoke a mood.
"There's a strong cultural bias that predisposes us to representational art, where the image has to resemble that which it represents," said Suzanne Wright, director of education at the Phillips. "So we're giving the kids as much interaction as we can with the paintings in the galleries, then we'll have them make their own. They'll draw and listen to music and take part in pantomime, everything we can think of to keep the connection going between kids' lives and the art."
Wright said she believes Scully's exhibition, "Sean Scully: Wall of Light," is ideal for the effort. "When you look closely at Scully's work, you find so many hidden surprises," she said. "Some of it is so large that you can walk about in front of the painting and watch how the colors seem to follow your movement. You learn to pay attention to beauty in a different way, something many kids readily understand."
For parents who can't make it to Saturday's event, Wright has several suggestions for helping children explore abstract art. One is a "color walk" through an exhibition, in which parents have kids look for a hue (or a special shape or line) that's repeated and discuss what it suggests to them. Then there is a "mood match" game, in which parents get the children to discuss various moods and look for paintings that match or suggest that mood.
"You can talk about the colors I use, or why the blocks are not the same size, or how you can seem to see between them," Scully explained. "Once the child is intrigued, you can go into more complex areas, like texture and reflection. You know, it's not my priority to create art for children, but when I'm working, I'm very much in touch with a kind of childlike energy."
Early childhood specialist Phyllis Brenner, assistant director of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, agrees that children can benefit from a hands-on approach to abstract art. "Children learn best by dealing with concrete objects, being able to touch things, to see how they work and what they're made of," she said. "The visual arts can stimulate certain developmental areas of growth. Just as exposure to music has a direct connection to math skills, visual arts can have an effect on literacy, how children decode information."
The second Phillips program for families will be a holiday tour Dec. 27, a before-hours event featuring interactive gallery games exploring the Scully collection and other works from the museum's permanent collection. The opening of a new wing at the museum in the spring will provide considerably more space for children's workshops, and Wright said the Phillips is planning to schedule many more.
"I hope that parents are not doing this with the hope of creating the next Picasso," Brenner said. "My hope is that they do it to open up their child's world."
"SEAN SCULLY: WALL OF LIGHT" -- Through Jan. 8. The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. www.phillipscollection.org. Open Friday-Saturday and Tuesday-Wednesday 10 to 5, Sunday noon to 7, Thursday 10 to 8:30 (closed Monday). $9 for adults, $7 for age 62 and older and students. Free for age 18 and younger. For tickets, call 800-551-7328 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
Bricks, Bars and Bands of Color: How to Build a Painting Like Sean Scully! -- Saturday from 9 to noon. For children ages 6 to 10 accompanied by an adult. $25 for each adult/child, $10 for each additional participant (includes museum admission). To register, call 202-387-2151, Ext. 260, or e-mail email@example.com.
Holiday Family Tour -- Dec. 27 from 9 to 10:15. $15 for each adult/child, $5 each additional child (includes museum admission). Children must be accompanied by an adult. To register, call 202-387-2151, Ext. 260, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.