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In Oakland’s libraries, working artists bring serious fun to kids

on September 10, 2014

Half a dozen wide-eyed children stared at artist Julie Schnabel one afternoon inside Oakland’s Main Library last week, watching her flip through a large book that showed winged inventions and old mechanical blueprints. “Who here knows who Leonardo da Vinci is?” Schnabel said.

Nobody seemed to know, but the pictures had the children up out of their seats, leaning in to get a closer look at the unusual sketches. Schnabel stopped at a full-length photo of a bird-like model, accompanied by Leonardo’s own sketch on the opposite page. “Today,” she said, “we’re going to make flying machines!”

Perplexed, they scanned the rectangular workshop table littered with construction paper, paper plates and Popsicle sticks. Schnabel grabbed a paper plate and began cutting in a circular pattern to demonstrate, creating a coil that she then punctured with a long craft stick. Using masking tape and two toilet paper cartons, she upended her model onto a paper plate base for the children to see.

Schnabel works with the city’s Library Education and Arts program (LEAP), a collaboration between the Oakland Public Library and MOCHA, the city’s Museum of Children’s Art. Aimed at kids without ready access to art classes, the free afterschool art programs encourage children to paint, draw, sculpt, and use a variety of other art media. The program’s 2014-2015 season began last Wednesday at eight Oakland Public Library branches, and will run through August 2015.

Working with officials from the city’s public library system, the nonprofit musuem launched LEAP in 2010 in response to the decline of art instruction in schools. “Art in the schools in Oakland is something that’s seen as non-essential, so I’m really happy the library can do this,” said Helen Bloch, Librarian and Children’s Room Manager at the Main Library.

Margaret Rodriguez, a library assistant who works alongside Bloch in the children’s room, is a strong supporter of the program and consistently brings her children, ages 4 and 8, to workshops—because so little emphasis is placed on arts education at their public school, she said. “Art’s not on the test, right?” Rodriguez said. “Even if teachers want to do it, they don’t always have the time.”

Rodriguez recalled an open house project her daughter’s class completed that lacked choice and creativity. The students were asked to draw a plum tree and use dot paint to fill in the fruit and leaves. “It’s just about the execution of the project,” she said.

For parents, the chance to have their children work with professional artists is a huge draw, Rodriguez said. “They’re not just coloring Garfield,” she said. With her son in her lap, she watched him use orange paper strips and Popsicle sticks to fashion a flying machine resembling a vintage model airplane.

Newer to LEAP, Mariana Cervantes sat at the table with her energetic 3-year-old boy as he worked to build something out of masking tape and craft sticks. “Not many programs are for free, and they try to create a community,” she said. The children “come to express how they feel; how they think.”

Schnabel shifted her attention to some children who had just walked in, asking them if they wanted to create their own flying machines. A St. Louis native with a BFA in mixed media and digital art from Elon University, Schnabel started at MOCHA a year ago. As a child she attended similar nonprofit art workshops offered by her community, she said, so she knows firsthand how arts exposure through programs like this one can impact children’s lives. “It was a family thing,” she said. “I’d go with my parents and brother and it was a bonding experience.”

MOCHA is selective about which teachers to place in each library branch—paying them based on their level of experience—and encourages the artists to have a continuous presence in the communities they serve. It’s not unusual for artists to take on larger roles as mentors for the families participating in the program. “Having an institution in the community that has an art focus is important,” said veteran LEAP teaching artist Kaya Fortune. “It stops a lot of things. It builds self-esteem. It stops violence.”

Fortune, a visual artist and menswear fashion designer, has taught at the Eastmont Branch since 2010 and has been with MOCHA for 25 years. Fortune said he’s been impressed by the way LEAP activities seem to involve children more actively in their own communities.

This past May, the museum received a $100,000 grant from Google to enhance LEAP. With continued funding, the program’s wish list includes expanding the program to serve all 17 Oakland library branches, partnering with more schools to provide free arts learning opportunities, and working with educators to integrate art in their classrooms.

Schnabel looked around to gauge the children’s progress on their flying contraptions, challenging them to channel the Old Master and explore their own designs. While parents assisted the young ones, the older students tested their models and made adjustments to improve upon their creations. Rodriguez’ daughter jumped up from her seat to give her machine a spin. She took a moment to shift the placement of her paper plate coil and tossed her machine up towards the ceiling. “It sort of flies!” she said. “It falls, but it’s pretty when it falls.”

For more information on weekly workshop times and participating branches, visit

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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