Noe Valley Voice October 2003

Are We There Yet? Family Adventures Close to Home
A Surreal Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

My 7-year-old son Miles spots SFMOMA's trademark black-and-white cylindrical skylight and plants his feet into the middle of the busy Third Street sidewalk.

"Not the museum!" he cries. "It's so boring."

The patrons waiting in line to enter the Chagall exhibit cringe. They don't want my reluctant kid inside the museum any more than he wants to be there. He gazes longingly across the street at the Metreon, a decidedly unboring place in his estimation.

"This will be different," I say. "Today we're going to make art, not just look at it."

We cross SFMOMA's cavernous lobby and head upstairs to the Koret Education Center, where the museum hosts the Family Art Studio on the third Sunday of each month. The studio provides would-be artists with materials and instruction from artists and volunteers, in a spacious, light-filled studio.

Miles brightens considerably when he spots the studio's white tables piled with ample supplies of textured paper, colorful international newspapers, feathers, silky fabrics, glue, scissors, and pristine boxes of oil pastels.

"They're brand-new," Miles whispers as he runs his fingers over the box of richly colored pastels. "Not like the ones at school."

Artist Nancy Katz gives us a flier that outlines the day's project, "Inspired by Chagall," a spinoff of the Marc Chagall show running at the museum through Nov. 4.

In kid-friendly language, the flier explains that Chagall, a Russian-born French painter known for his inventiveness, often "played" with scale and relationships in art. "In his artwork, a human being was just as likely to engage in conversation with a rooster as another human," I read.

"A rooster!" Miles laughs. "No way!"

Katz shares a Chagall picture of a rainbow-winged fish plucking a violin. "Really," she says. "Anything is possible!"

Miles checks out a display of whimsical animals, which Katz has arranged to inspire budding artists as they develop their collages.

"Each animal has a story," Katz explains. "And their stories can trigger something in the art." She tells us about the spotted folk-art chicken she bought in the Polish village of her grandparents, and the fuzzy toy bunny that came from her kindergarten-teacher aunt.

Miles examines the animals, listening to Katz's stories. "Okay," he announces, "I'm ready."

He clips a series of random shapes from sheets of colored paper and arranges them in a vaguely animal shape. He draws a ringed planet in the corner, and then pastes a cartoon baby on the back of his creature.

"What does the baby represent?" I ask.

He replaces the cap on his gluestick. "It's art, Mom. It doesn't need to make sense."

All around us, families are creating and talking about art.

"This is our monthly routine," says Mark, an Oakland Hills father. "We do the project and then tour the museum. It's a great Sunday for us."

Mark's son Max, 8, adds Chagall-inspired swirls of color around a beautifully rendered rabbit.

"I like it here," he says. "I like art."

When asked which artist he admires most, Max doesn't hesitate. "Mr. Hirshkoff. He's the art teacher at my school. We call him Hershey."

At the next table, Mission District resident Claire Lewis pauses in her work to watch daughter Tess, 5, glue ribbons of silk to a pink-feathered bird.

"It's our second time here," she says. "Our last project involved construction. It was a model of something very mysterious."

Tess tells me that she likes the Family Art Studio because it's "nice and big."

Claire smiles. "Coming in here makes the museum less intimidating. For Tess, it's one more place to come and play."

Back at our table, Arlo, 3, is adding orange squares to a fanciful tree he's created with his father. His mom, Sandra, and brother, Emmett, 10, join him, freeing up Dad to explore the museum on his own.

"This is great!" Sandra gushes. "Emmett and I were able to do the whole headset tour of the Chagall exhibit. Having a place like this makes it so much easier for a whole family to visit the museum."

Emmett adds a few swatches of fabric to his brother's piece. He tells me that he liked Philip Guston's paintings better than Chagall's.

"His art was strange and colorful," he says. "I liked the painting of the weird house."

Miles perks up when he hears Emmett's enthusiasm for Guston's strange paintings. He glues two circular foil "feet" to his creature and adds his collage to the wall display of the day's work.

He then drags me toward the galleries, anxious to look at the weird Guston paintings. He hasn't shown this much interest in viewing art since he discovered the naked Grecian statues at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Miles speeds through six rooms of Guston paintings before finding the house painting that Emmett mentioned. "This is it!" he yells. "Ooooh. Look at the eyeballs."

We giggle in front of a disgusting self-portrait called "Phlebitis," and rush away from a spooky amalgamation of body parts and industrial artifacts.

After years of cajoling Miles to visit any museums, I'm optimistic about his newfound enthusiasm for art. Perhaps overly so.

"Let's take a look at the Chagall show," I suggest.

"Okay," he says. "But only four paintings, then we're out of here."

We pause briefly in front of exactly four paintings in the Chagall exhibit, swing back into the Family Art Studio to pick up our work, and head directly to the Metreon for a snack.

If you have a Bay Area adventure you'd like writer Rosie Ruley Atkins to explore, e-mail her at

Getting to the Museum

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, located at 151 Third Street, is easily accessible via Muni. From Noe Valley, take the J-Church to Montgomery Street and backtrack down Market Street to Third. The museum is at the corner of Third and Mission streets, across from Yerba Buena Gardens. Admission is $10 for adults, and free for children under 13 when accompanied by an adult. The Family Art Studio is included in the price of admission and is open to drop-ins from noon to 3 p.m. on the third Sunday of the month. For more information, visit the museum's web site at www. or call 415-357-4000.

Several Family Art Studio participants I talked to recommended museum membership because single visits with kids can be very brief and memberships provide an economical way to make more frequent visits. Annual memberships start at $65 and include many benefits in addition to unlimited admission.

Tip: When popular shows such as the Marc Chagall exhibit are hanging, Sunday afternoon lines can be long. Non-members should either arrive early or reserve tickets in advance. Note also that the Chagall show, which continues through Nov. 4, charges an extra $5 ticket price.

For those interested in more Chagall-oriented work, Nancy Katz is offering a "Chagall Sunday" at her Berkeley studio on Oct. 26 from 1 to 4 p.m. Call Katz at 510-843-5280 or check out her web site: