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Through Children's Eyes 

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GEOGRAPHY IS DISCOVERY: EXPLORING THE WORLD THROUGH CHILDREN'S ART

at the Field Museum, through October 2

There's something a bit odd about Maasai Dance Celebrating Cattle Raid, one of the 77 works of children's art from 26 countries on six continents now on view at the Field Museum. Though the title suggests a boisterous celebration of a violent action, the image painted by Kenneth Okelo, of Kenya, is remarkably calm. Figures dance or merely stand on a plain behind a small cooking fire, and everything but the blue sky--the soil, their faces, their clothing, even the fire under the pot--is a gentle shade of tan, giving the picture a pleasing placidity.

In the mature work of most great artists, one senses a profound difference between one part of the picture and another--the eyes in a self-portrait seem to transcend the aging skin; the rooftops in a landscape are never quite unified with the mountain behind. The excitement of good children's art is very different. Instead of a complex but fixed vision, the imagery is not fully formed but freer and more playful. And children seem to see connections between things rather than differences.

This last ability is especially evident in "Geography Is Discovery," a traveling exhibit of works selected by a jury from over 10,000 entries, cosponsored by the National Geographic Society and Paintbrush Diplomacy, a San Francisco organization hoping to foster "international communication through the language of children's art and writing." Most of the kids represented here were between 11 and 17, but a few were as young as 6. They were asked to submit art illustrating one of several themes--the environment, the culture, and so on--described in blandly positive terms, which may account for the works' generally optimistic tone.

In the best pieces the artist's unifying vision is an expression of a particular attitude toward the subject. One of the few bleak works, Soviet Pipeline by the Latvian Janis Ozers, shows a field of black ink scraped away to create a dense forest of thin white lines depicting the laying of a pipeline, with a crane and derrick in the background and a helicopter overhead. Together the subject matter and the dark, cluttered design create an almost sinister aura. Far gentler is the almost humorous Camouflage, by Paula Smith of the Bahamas. The outline of a white seal is barely visible against a white field of snow, its black eyes and whiskers standing out while the rest of its body almost vanishes. By blending animal and land, Smith underlines a common assumption here: that the distinctions adults traditionally make--between figure and ground, human and animal, insect and rock, animate and inanimate--are all illusions, arbitrary divisions denying the unity of all things seen so readily by children.

Similarly Gunil Kuma, of India, in Four Religions figuratively rectifies the sectarian strife that has so riven his country. Lined up in a row in the middle distance are what the artist describes as "four buildings representing the different religions in my country--a church, a mosque, a temple, and [gurdwara]." While the buildings display different symbols and slightly different architecture, they are of similar sizes and forms--one has three spires, another three domes. In front of the buildings an undivided open space is filled with people, some shaking hands, all mingling in brotherhood.

Several pictures depict the unity of nature, among them Shepard, by the Bulgarian Petya Banova: sheep, birds, and trees are all represented as brightly colored ovals. In the lushly beautiful Spring Meadow (Bana Kabbani, Syria), red flowers almost float in the foreground against a near-translucent field; red and lavender also streak the background mountains and sky. The children in At the Zoo (Therese Abmann, Germany) wear outfits with brightly colored polka dots that clearly rhyme with the color splotches on a giraffe that's munching on green ovals representing trees. Island Environment (Joshua Eaton, United States) is constructed of colored-paper cutouts, some with designs drawn on them; the fact that houses, trees, fish, and birds are all of similarly textured paper helps unify the scene, suggesting a commonality to all the components.

Other pictures portray cultural unity. Cooking Lesson by Noriko Ishiwata of Japan shows her elementary-school cooking class: we see three girls, one of them cutting up a vegetable. Ishiwata doesn't emphasize the specifics of the lesson or show who is learning what; rather the image is an essay in Degas-like pastels, a flat space in which each girl becomes a similar grouping of colors within the design. In A Traditional Costume the Czech Kveta Kolouchova gives us a woman with a simply outlined, unmodeled face; the complex round shapes on the fabric of her white blouse and headpiece resemble both her eyes and her mouth--the face, usually the main conveyer of identity, is here subsumed by the cultural context. Raj Quartet (Master Raja Roy, India) presents a complex street scene--including a chess game, the exhibition of a large painting, and a number of standing men--unified by certain visual devices: the chessboard's grid is repeated in the black-and-white-tiled pavement, and many of the figures resemble one another.

Pandas, by six-year-old Gaolin (China), is a child's version of a traditional Chinese painting. Its simplified brush strokes have a gentle, playful rhythm, whose charm makes both picture making and calligraphy seem almost magical games. Two seated pandas--one of them touching a bamboo plant, the other holding a panda baby--are rendered in strokes of varying thickness and density. The calligraphy across the top is rendered similarly: in the manner of traditional Chinese painting, the text reads "Panda family painted by six-year-old Gaolin in 1991 in Tientsin." The idea that calligraphy and pictorial images are connected is basic to Chinese art; here the two elements express that nature and language, animal and human names, are not alien to each other. This painting has a feeling of natural, organic balance--neither the words nor the images, the animals depicted nor the painter identified in the text, are superior or inferior to the others. All exist on a continuum that includes humans and animals, images and words.

My favorite picture, The Ant, is by another six-year-old, an Australian Aborigine named Justine. Mounted with the image is a printed text, perhaps a traditional Aborigine story, telling of an ant eaten by a cat, then brought back to life by a spirit. The picture itself is on pink paper torn into an irregular oval shape suggesting a symbolic map, a self-enclosed world. There are two figural shapes whose parts include two reddish suns, a brown oval below one of them, and yellow and black circles--the cat and the ant, perhaps. Most of the paper is covered with many smaller irregular shapes, none of them exactly alike, mostly white and black but a few red and yellow: these circles, squiggles, and lines have an almost glyphic suggestiveness.

The Ant recalls the highly geometric paintings by adult Aborigines that have entered the market in recent years, which also seem to depict a world of multiple forms. Some of these are stunning, but even the best have an almost mechanical quality. In The Ant, however, every shape seems in the process of transforming itself into every other shape; this is a window on an enchanted world in which everything is alive, in which everything has the potential to become something else. This almost pantheistic view is a more radical version of many other pictures here, whose compositions emphasize unity. I haven't lost my love for the intellectual distinctions and perceptual gaps of adult high art, but in a world increasingly torn by sectarian conflicts, it seems we have much to learn by seeing through children's eyes.

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