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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the March 31, 2004

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Culture for Kids

Last summer my son, now a third grader, discovered what Jesus looked like. Or rather, what a couple of dozen Renaissance painters thought he looked like. For better or worse, my son has formulated his concepts of Jesus in bits and pieces by osmosis. When he says things like "You know, mom, when you die, you lay down and cling to the ground, but then the sky opens up and Jesus takes you to heaven," I reel myself in and try to refocus him on solving life’s big mysteries like why do grown men, some in expensive business suits, spit in public?

So, on a very hot August day last year, my husband informed me he was taking Mackenzie to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "It’s about time, don’t you think?" I figured I would get hourly reports at work on my cell phone, like when they went to Great Adventure earlier in the summer. "Hi, Mom, I’m 1,200 feet up and there’s just a little skinny railing! Dad’s here, too! Sweet!!!" Phone goes dead. But no, I received no calls that day from the belly of the cultural whale on Ben Franklin Parkway and 26th Street.

Anxiously waiting for a report after our son’s first foray into the world of fine art, I waited until Mackenzie was in bed that night, then asked David what impressed our son most. Apparently, they had wandered into a gallery of early European art full of paintings of the Crucifixion. There was Jesus, with blood dripping from all the appropriate puncture wounds. Mackenzie’s eyes were glued to the oil-laden canvasses as if he’d wandered into Sears and all the TV screens had been stuck on pause. "You know what, Dad?" he said, after several minutes of silent study. "Everybody knows about Jesus, but nobody knows what he looked like."

Don’t think a seven-year-old boy won’t dig an art museum. Mackenzie’s pituitary glands fairly exploded as he stood in front of a giant canvas practically the size of our living room wall, 5 1/2 feet by 10 feet, a Technicolor masterpiece of R-rated blood and gore and dismemberment – The Massacre of the Innocents by Francesco "Paceico" de Rosa (1640), depicting King Herod in his rage at not being able to find the newborn Jesus, the new king of the Jews, in Bethlehem and the surrounding district, ordering the massacre of dozens of male infants under the age of two.

A young boy in an art museum must be an anomaly, as most of the adults were watching Mackenzie look at the painting, and a janitor who was wheeling a cart of sheets of glass stopped and waited for this very short art critic to be done looking at the painting before moving through the gallery. For young boys, skip the Degas and Monet and go for the armor, swords, and mummy cases- and blood and gore.

I’m sure there have been books written on the subject, but for young children, I think "culture" doesn’t just mean museums and ballet; it just means change the scenery. Get outside the suburban box and have zero expectations. Trust me, your kid will not always react the way you think he will. The point is, just take your kid places. And don’t "discuss" it before, during, or after – other than maybe telling him where you’re going (while you’re already on your way there). If your kid has a question or an insight or a reaction he wants to verbalize, he will. And if he doesn’t, be content knowing he’s having a reaction – inside.

One good place to let kids dip their toes in the water of fine arts is Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, a 22-acre oasis of outdoor sculpture and stunning landscaping: it’s very difficult to break a 10-ton sculpture. The first time we took Mackenzie here, at about age four, he rubbed the breasts of the naked woman in "Dejeuner Deja Vu," J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s 3-D interpretation of Manet’s famous painting "Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe," then promptly fell in the pond behind it. "He’s a breeder," my husband said proudly. I ignored the breast thing; just being around art with my child made me happy.

It was here, walking among these looming abstract monoliths, silent teachers every one of them, that I discovered how to communicate without words to my son why art can take you to a different place and time or just a different place in your own imagination. Every time we go, he sees me stop dead for several minutes in front of "Nine Muses" by Carlos Dorrien. (He knows it’s my favorite without my having to say, "And this is Mommy’s favorite!") Nine tall female stone figures in various crumbled stages of ruin, representing the nine muses of classical mythology, stand in rectangular formation on a granite floor. Around the floor, which is more like an island, is a moat with a small stone bridge across the front that reminds me of a similar bridge in the Japanese garden my grandfather built in his backyard while I was growing up. Nine Muses takes me back there and to about a hundred other places, real and imagined.

This sculpture, which to me is fashioned like a little chapel, fills my icy, atheistic heart with a different kind of fellowship. I could look at it for hours. That’s what I want my son to know about art – the performing and the visual arts. I know he’s "getting" it just by being taken there. The first several times we stood in front of Nine Muses, he was mostly fascinated by how many sticks he could throw in the moat before I told him to stop, or by how fast he could run around the moat before I told him to stop. But by the time he was a little older, his focus changed; he began to examine the figures and comment, even if it was just to say, "Hey, half her butt’s gone."

Just to one side of Nine Muses, half-hidden in the hedge, is a wooden door. It takes you down a miniature maze of shrubbery until it opens up to a secret nook with a hammock. Mackenzie and I have lain there together, many a time, like twins entwined in the womb, wordlessly looking up at the sky, watching the clouds marry and divorce like a time-lapsed film of the continental shift.

Grounds for Sculpture has a lot of these clandestine hide-outs, which are especially great for children to just sit in and process all the visual stimuli around them. Processing is really important for kids; that goes for everything, not just art and culture. Our wonderful family friend, Pearl Pashko, now 94, taught me that when my son was born – in fact it was the single best piece of baby advice I ever got. "Just let him be, let him process," she said. On the cultural front, I take that to mean, don’t pack culture in. Dole it out like a good piece of chocolate cake. Too much makes the belly ache, but a lick of icing from the birthday candle is divine. (We have a family membership to Grounds for Sculpture; at $110/year, it pays for itself in a few visits.)

If you live this close to New York and don’t take your kid into the city on a regular basis, then I say, hey, you’re your own worst problem and don’t blame me if your kid grows up thinking that Mucha Lucha screensavers are fine art (and if you don’t watch Cartoon Network, you won’t get the Mucha Lucha reference). My son’s first trip to New York was at three weeks old. His first "museum" was the inside of our friend’s West Village apartment but it counted in my book. (Our friend won’t come visit us here in the burbs – too much land. "I don’t do the nay-cha thing," she says.)

By age three, Mackenzie was chatting up the maitre d’ standing outside on the steps of the Cub Room on Sullivan Street who told us we could bring our son there anytime. And we hadn’t stepped inside MoMA or Carnegie Hall or even the Museum of Natural History. That could wait. Watching the hotdog guy in front of the big lions outside New York Public Library is a lot of culture for a three-year-old. I think what works best for very young kids in New York, or anywhere for that matter, is just walking around. A preschooler’s unlikely to sit through a symphony but he’ll sit through a vanilla milkshake at Cafe Vivaldi on Jones Street.

Of course the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West and 79th Street) is a great place for kids after about age five (and the cafeteria actually has real food grownups can eat like stone oven pizza, sushi, and Cobb salad – don’t miss the planet cookies decorated like Earth, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and Nebula). Dinosaur bones and a state-of-the-art planetarium are sure bets for the under-10 set.

It’s interesting what a venture into the world of art and culture can teach you about your child. I imagine there’s another Sarah Chang, maybe in obscure third world country; we’ll just never hear her because she’ll never hold a violin in her hands. I didn’t know my son was seriously interested in dance until last fall when we happened into three free tickets to Riverdance at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, better known as NJPAC. (The directions on the web site, www.njpac.org, are very good and you can take the train, too). Every child should be taken to see a performance here, if only for the grandeur of the architecture.

We lucked out with wonderful orchestra seats on the aisle. (Always try to seat your child on the aisle so they can see well, and spend all you can afford to get in the front orchestra of any theater; kids need to be close, otherwise, it’s really no different than watching TV.) Some critics pooh-pooh Riverdance as dance for the masses, but I disagree. My son was electrified. Really loud music, an earthy, pounding mix of fiddles, Uilleann pipes, percussion, flute, soprano sax, and acoustic guitar, the kind that reaches in and challenges your internal organs to stay in place. And dancing with so much speed and energy, it just made you happy.

Barely able to contain his excitement (his theater etiquette leaves something to be desired – a roll of duct tape would have come in handy to stick his bottom to the seat), my son’s little hands and legs were moving back and forth and up and down like a marionette on amphetamines. My husband and I exchanged one glance; we both knew we had to get this kid into a dance class. Maybe you’ll take your kid somewhere, and they may not say, "I want to do that," but you can tell from their physical reaction, their body language, whether they’ve been bit.

Mackenzie started taking jazz and tap at Princeton Dance and Theater Studio in September. When a flyer for "Reel to Real" a children’s series at Lincoln Center that integrates film clips and live performance, arrived the same month, I immediately bought tickets to "Hats Off, Taps On," a tribute to Gregory Hines, in March. I’d never bought tickets to anything so far ahead (OK, I just bought tickets to Cirque du Soleil in July in Philadelphia). Held in the small, 200-seat Walter Reade Theater, the program was hosted by Omar Edwards, cousin to world-famous tap dancer Savion Glover and an accomplished hoofer himself who has toured the world and appeared on Broadway in "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk." In between clips of Gregory Hines in the films "Tap" and "Cotton Club," a troupe called the Young Hoofers performed, and special guests included 83-year-old veteran hoofer Harold Cromer and Savion Glover’s mom, Yvette Glover, singing a moving rendition of "Make Someone Happy."

Towards the end of the program, after a clip of Hines and a 13-year-old Glover in "Tap," Edwards said, "The only thing better than a clip of Savion Glover is Savion Glover!" Glover, dressed in an unassuming red shirt and baggy jeans, kind of shuffled onstage, head down, dreads dangling like carrots from Bugs Bunny’s mouth, eyes averted – his signature posture, and the place went nuts – of course they couldn’t have put his name on the program. I whispered to Mackenzie, "That’s the best tap dancer in the whole world." Glover not only performed but invited all the children in the audience onto the stage to dance with him.

Mackenzie hesitated at first, but once he saw the stage filling with children, some as young as two, doing the shim-sham, a step he knew, he bounded up. So there he was, dancing on stage with Savion Glover, at Lincoln Center in New York. If that’s not a Kodak moment, ain’t nothin’ a Kodak moment. I got that feeling you get sometimes when you look at your kid and you love them so much or you’re so proud of them it actually hurts like when you look at the sun.

After the show, still high from his "debut," Mackenzie said to me, "Now I know I really, really, really, really want to do tap." "What did it for you?" I asked. He pointed to the stage. "You just saw it. Live." Could I have known that would happen? Absolutely not. So do the "cul-cha" thing. You never know what a day at the museum or a stroll in the city might bring.


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