A young girl with waist-length golden hair entered a small room where a woman sat at a spinning wheel. Fascinated, the girl approached the device swiftly. Although the scene was in a modern museum, it had the feel of a fairy tale. A powerful spell had indeed been cast, and it was working: Amelia Salenger, the 4-year-old visitor, was becoming enchanted by contemporary art.
“Have you ever heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin?” the weaver, Deborah L. Morris, asked the child. “Do you want to see how this works?”
Ms. Morris, 58, a fiber artist, may not spin straw into gold, but she achieves her own intriguing alchemy: spinning strips of plastic bags into yarn. On a table were miniature looms for children, and a small drop spindle. A wall displayed other materials and fabric Ms. Morris had created with young visitors: She does the warp; they weave the weft. Soon Amelia was busy, too.
The two had met at “Art, Artists & You,” a groundbreaking new show at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan that is part gallery, part studio, part laboratory. The museum selected four professional artists — Ms. Morris; Sara Jimenez, 33, who works with found objects; Ezra Wube, 37, who explores technology and new media; and Yeon Ji Yoo, 40, whose medium is paper — and built them rooms within the exhibition. The museum requires the artists to occupy these studios a minimum of two days a week, for six hours at a time; at least one is present each day. About 40 finished pieces by these artists and their contemporaries fill the gallery, and a materials-stocked family studio, led by museum staff, accompanies each artist’s studio, so that children can work independently.
“We wanted kids to be inspired by great art around them, and while they’re making art, to be inspired by the artists,” said Andrew S. Ackerman, the museum’s executive director.
Choosing the artists, who receive stipends and will be replaced by a new group this fall, was a painstaking process: The museum wanted professionals who were not only comfortable with children but who also reflected the city’s cultural diversity. (Mr. Wube was born in Ethiopia; Ms. Yoo emigrated from Korea; Ms. Jimenez is Filipina-Canadian.)
“We wanted to have the materials drive the process and focus on things that are very familiar to children,” added David Rios, the museum’s director of public programs and the show’s curator. At the same time, young people might never have thought of turning these items — string, balloons, castoff clothing, old cassette tapes — into art. “The kid who’s not comfortable drawing or painting learns that you can manipulate wire to solve a problem or create a design,” Mr. Rios said.
Ms. Yoo recalled a little boy who was shocked to see her tearing paper. “He was like, ‘What are you doing?’” she said. “Well, you can make artwork by ripping things up, too.”
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This doesn’t mean that what’s on view lacks thematic sophistication. Ms. Yoo’s paper sculptures and Mr. Wube’s video art frequently deal with migration, while Ms. Jimenez’s assemblages often comment on colonialism. One of the artists’ challenges is how to communicate to children that their work is more than conglomeration.
Ms. Jimenez said she could explain her art by referring to storytelling, and that she might ask children to try repurposing found photographs: “If you were to put your own inspiration and fiction into that, what would you want to do and why?”
The artists also gain from the residency. Both Ms. Yoo and Mr. Wube said they found it freeing. “I lose control of what I do, incorporating kids in my work,” Mr. Wube said. “That’s important. That’s how you can grow. Instead of staying circular, you grow in a spiral.”