Students from Chautauqua County schools tour of Strohl Art Center and Fowler-Kellog Art Center

JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
Chautauqua Lake teacher Morgan McCheskey’s sixth grade class looks at “Untitled” by Thom Flynn at the Strohl Art Center. Flynn’s multimedia piece, on display as part of the 58th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, is made from compressed paper.

A group of fifth-graders gathered in the Melvin Johnson Sculpture Garden, looking at Brett Hunter’s steel and granite sandwich titled “Tectonics.”

Judy Barie, director of galleries, asked the students what they thought it looks like.

“A unicorn.”

“A s’more.”

What of the twisted white aluminum of Richard Pitt’s “Hyper Glyphs,” Barrie asked.

“A zebra.”

“A unicorn spine with chopsticks.”

These students were among the first of three groups from Chautauqua Lake Central School who, last Monday and Tuesday, got to glimpse inside the galleries of the Visual Arts at  Chautauqua Institution (VACI) before the official opening Sunday.

The sneak peek included two sculpture gardens, the 58th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, “Domestic Vacations” by photographer Julie Blackmon — both in the Strohl Art Center — and “Gatherings: Contemporary Drawings,” a collection of seven artists in the Fowler-Kellogg Art Center.

“I think it’s very important for children to be exposed to all the arts,” said Chautauquan Jill Bellowe, who along with her husband, Arnold, sponsored the school tours and joined the students for one of them.

Nor did the students merely observe the art. During the afternoon tour on Tuesday, they built their own as well, crafting cairn rock totems out of loose river-stones from the path to learn about negative space in sculptures.

“Anything hands on is really good for them,” Barie said while the children carefully balanced rocks to create bridges, pyramids and towers.

Once in the gallery proper, the students were equally enthusiastic about the pieces in the Exhibition of Contemporary Art. They examined a series of 100 paintings that had been stacked on top of each other, concealing all but the top painting. The children took turns theorizing about what the other 99 pictures might be — smaller versions of the top one? The same design, but in different colors?

After, a few girls began an earnest discussion of the angles and reflections in a painting of a pane of glass, while others puzzled over an untitled work made of old posters and billboards.

The kids seemed most excited, however, over “Domestic Vacation,” which depicts Blackmon’s various brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews in staged photographs.

Some of the students were puzzled by a lack of adults in the pictures.

“There should be parents sitting outside, because there are so many kids,” one said, referring to a photo where children seem to be ordering their own furniture.

When the tour guide suggested that maybe the photograph depicts a world in which children, not adults, rule, one boy let out a gasp.

A few of the children had oddly specific interpretations of the artwork. In a photograph titled “Liftoff,” a boy in his underwear with oversized earphones inhaled sharply.

“He looks like he just woke up and started listening to music and got scared,” one girl said.

Nor did all the children take the tour entirely seriously. One, when asked about the similarities between two pictures said, “they were both drawn by artists.”

Most, though, stayed engaged through the last sculpture — a final Brett Hunter piece titled “ARK,” a half-steel, half-granite arch. One girl thought it looked like a wedding arch, another boy was reminded of a pair of legs.

None of them mentioned unicorns.

“By the questions these kids ask, they were very interested and learned something,” Arnie Bellowe said. “It’s a great opportunity to get them inside the gate. … I would hope that these kids grow up to remember this tour and come to Chautauqua as adults.”