Los Angeles school kids make fine art – with socks

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In an era of diminishing budgets, arts education in Los Angeles holds a precarious position. According to one estimate, more than half of all students in the L.A. Unified School District will not receive arts instruction in elementary school.

In the past five years, state funding for elementary arts education has dropped by 60 million dollars. Some schools have made up for the shortfall with grants and donations.

But one unique program — spearheaded by the L.A. County Museum of Art — is going a step further: bringing high art to a low-income school.

Just off MacArthur Park, a nondescript concrete building houses one of L.A.’s more under-the-radar art galleries. The exhibits here don’t draw legions of high-profile critics. But the art never fails to draw a reaction.

That’s because this unusual museum space happens to reside in the middle of a public school — in this case, Charles White Elementary, in Westlake. Operated by the L.A. County Museum of Art, the sprawling 3,000-square-foot gallery puts on shows, but it also organizes art-making sessions for the school’s 341 students.

Guiding the activity is Shinique Smith — an established artist from New York. Next year, Smith will have a one-woman survey at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She is known for creating bubbling assemblages made from textiles and clothing: boxer shorts, wedding dresses, old pillow cases.

In the school’s gallery, just off the playground, some of her knotted, organic bundles descend from the ceiling. A series of abstract collages hang on the wall. Smith works with clothes because of the emotions they can generate.

“I showed the kids a picture of some socks on a clothes line — like 30 pairs of socks on a clothes line — that I found beautiful,” Smith said. “And they all reacted like: “Eww, socks.” So I thought, “That’s perfect. Let’s make them work with socks.”

She and the students are collaborating on a bulbous sculpture made from a rainbow of socks. When it’s done, it will be permanently installed at the school. The project engages kids’ creativity – something they may not get the rest of the day.

“We have children that come from backgrounds where they’re not exposed to art. They’re not exposed to sports. Because there’s simply not that additional income coming in to provide that extracurricular activity,” said Irene Worrell, the principal at Charles White, where eighty percent of the students are new to English. “It gives them a second voice. Or a third voice in their case. A sense of confidence. That they don’t have to know the language to be able to produce something.”

LACMA has funded this unique program for the last five years — and intends to keep it going indefinitely. Sarah Jesse at the museum helped organize the project, and says the presence of the gallery has given the kids a richer understanding of what it means to make art.

“They were doing things that they noticed in Shinique’s work: like incorporating text with an ink wash or cutting out a shape from an ink wash and using that as a collage material, which is something that Shinique does,” Jesse said.

Various programs deploy arts educators to public schools in L.A. But this is the only one that maintains a curated exhibition space. On view through July are pieces from LACMA’s permanent collection as well as a number of sculptures made by Smith.

“That piece over there, “Bright Matter,” has several of my own personal items in it. A nightgown with strawberries on it — and there’s this bit of Hawaiian dress that I never got to wear,” Smith said.

The gallery at Charles White is free and open to the public. Which means that anyone can drop in and see Smith’s art —  as well as the sock sculpture made by the kids.