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Art for art's sake -- not art for a buck

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000

Judy Stewart has not lost her sense of wonder.

Losing it would be death in her profession. She teaches art to hundreds of kids at Tampa's Dunbar Elementary.

"It's amazing," she says, "that you can get that stuff out of little children."

Art and commerce typically have no more in common than ballet and demolition derbies. But some of that stuff, as Stewart called it, is on display at West Shore Plaza, a monument to commerce if ever there was one.

Two dozen of the best works by children in Hillsborough County's schools are in the show put on by the Tampa Museum of Art. One of the works, a wall hanging, was made by five of Judy Stewart's kids. They're second-graders.

The wall hanging consists of five small wreaths, one made by each child out of crushed brown shopping bags. The bags were glued to matte board that was then arranged by Stewart on a larger board. The wreaths are dotted with bits of rope, fabric and paper copies the kids made of African fetishes -- tribal decorative items, comparable to good luck charms -- and colored in the tones of the earth. Brown, blood red, smoky orange, black, yellow, khaki green. The fetishes were fish, turtles, birds, trees.

The work was made in February, to mark Black History Month. The artists were Julia Lopez, Silpu Abraham, Akilah Chaney, Ben Murray and Danielle Vermilyea. Only their proud teacher and prouder relatives will recognize the names.

Many more people are familiar with another artist who has gone out of his way to marry art and commerce, Thomas Kinkade. He recently opened a gallery at another Tampa mall, Old Hyde Park Village, much like the galleries he has in scores of malls across the country.

He only sells prints of his paintings. Without exception, they are gooey, unreal landscapes and street scenes, as they might be in some sunset nobody has ever seen. The prints can sell for thousands, and Kinkade has sold 10-million of them.

In interviews, he has called God his art agent.

Take the loaves and fishes, turn them into dollars and give them to somebody with a paint brush and no imagination, only an accountant. Kinkade is the result.

Stewart, or "Miz Art" as she has her students call her, asked the second-graders to get paper bags at the grocery to make the wreaths. Frame shops donated the matte boards. Dunbar's PTA gives Stewart extra money for supplies, but Stewart spends as much as $600 of her own to outfit her classroom.

I asked how she coaxes work out of kids who may have seen nothing more creative than cartoons. Off she went, saying more or less how pretty pictures have nothing to do with it. She tries to convince kids that art is not about the ability to make a precise likeness of something but about the possibilities that exist in heads, hearts and hands.

"I'll ask every child in the room to put their finger in the air and draw a circle for me. I see their fingers going all different ways, but it's still a circle. Contour drawing is very hard for kids to understand. But that's what it is, drawing the edges of something. Then I'll tell them to draw a circle on the table. Then I'll have them draw a circle on a piece of paper and cut it out. Then I'll have them draw a circle on a piece of colored paper. Then they can lay all this out on the table and everyone's will look different. That's how you get what you get.

"Art is a problem solving course. I ask them to draw a circle, and they have to figure out how to draw a circle. If they can solve how to draw a circle, they can solve how to read that word, circle. It's all intertwined."

I wish Judy Stewart could be cloned as Thomas Kinkade clones his work.

Before our conversation ended, I asked Stewart what she thought of Kinkade's paintings. She'd never heard of the guy.

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