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Avenues for the Imagination

When children come into our art gallery, there is an immediate sense of comfort and familiarity. They see Danny the Dinosaur and it is like seeing a friend.”

This comment from Dr. Jerry Mallett, the Director of the Mazza Collection Galleria, describes the special appeal of this particular art gallery. Mazza, housed on the University of Findlay campus in northwest Ohio, is the world’s first and largest teaching gallery specializing in original artwork from children’s picture books. Over 1,200 original works of art from children’s books are housed in the collection’s five thematic galleries. The collection encompasses old favorites such as Peter Rabbit and Raggedy Ann, as well as many works by contemporary Caldecott Award-winning children’s book illustrators.

The familiarity and approachability of these illustrations stem from the child-centered medium of children’s picture books, a common teaching tool in elementary schools. Children’s trade books replace or supplement traditional reading textbooks in many classrooms and are used increasingly to teach art, science, history, and music in addition to language arts. The schools’ familiarity with picture books, combined with Mazza’s educational focus, led the gallery to work with teachers and administrators on a daily basis.

Mazza collaborates with schools, first, through free guided tours that introduce school classes to the artistic techniques used in picture book illustrations. Mazza has also grown to offer programs for schools and school systems, some programs directly oriented towards students and others for teachers. According to Terry Olthouse, Mazza’s education coordinator, one common trend is apparent in all of Mazza’s varied collaborative efforts, “While Mazza provides resources and staff expertise, it is the administrators, teachers, and especially students who provide the enthusiasm and imagination that complete the process.”

Mazza’s most recent project, aimed at benefitting local schools, illustrates the multidisciplinary nature of picture books. In many Hancock County classrooms, students study a local history unit from A History of Frontier Findlay. This 1962 text was written by Mabel Vance, a Findlay elementary principal, and illustrated by Alex Baluch, a former school supervisor of art. Mr. Baluch’s full color illustrations of pioneer life were first reproduced in a two-tone black and green that is still familiar to students who study from a few old copies of the book. When Mr. Baluch’s original artwork was rediscovered and donated to the Mazza Collection, Mazza searched for funding to aid in the re-publication of the original book, and found it in the generosity of a local individual. Copies of A History of Frontier Findlay’s second edition, which is larger, clearer, and has full color illustrations, will be distributed to each third grade classroom in the county. As part of this project, the education and docent coordinators compiled an eighty-page teacher’s guide to be distributed at a teacher in-service. In addition to the in-service, Mazza will conduct a docent enrichment session to introduce docents to the special exhibit of Mr. Baluch’s artwork and present ways to integrate historic information and artifacts into their gallery tours.

While Mazza works closely with local schools, it also arranges for resources to be available on-site at schools that do not have easy access to the gallery. When artists travel to Mazza to make public presentations, Mazza’s director notifies school administrators and arranges for the artists to visit interested schools. Mazza also offers a traveling exhibit of artwork that tours school systems throughout Ohio. Included in the cost of the exhibit are a loan of 30 pieces of original artwork from the book SPEAK! Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators Brag About Their Dogs, a video explanation of how to hang the art in thematic units, and a teacher’s activity guide.

In the spring and summer, Mazza hosts programs that address the specific needs of students and teachers. Mazza’s annual Young Authors Conference brings approximately two hundred local children, chosen by their schools, to the University of Findlay. The conference includes an author or artist presentation, book signings, a gallery tour, a time for the children to share their handmade picture books, and refreshments. The Young Authors Conference is educational for both the children involved and for the University of Findlay graduate students who organize the event as part of their class work. During the summer months, Mazza offers a week-long institute, which may be taken for pleasure or for credit through the University of Findlay. Though the institute is open to the public, most of its participants are elementary school teachers, who often receive funding from their local school systems toward continuing education units. The institute offers over twelve internationally recognized children’s book authors and illustrators, gallery tours, and pull-out sessions covering thematic units and methodology.

Mazza’s School Extension program is, perhaps, the Galleria’s most extensive form of school involvement. Each year, Mazza chooses four schools from among those that apply to participate. These “Mazza Schools” invest their time into the study of picture book artists, and raise $1,000 to sponsor a piece of art at the Galleria. Mazza’s deputy director opens the program at a school-wide assembly. He presents information about the Mazza Galleria, focusing on the original artwork of three illustrators. During the following six week period, students read several books done by each of the three illustrators. During the following six week period, students vote on their favorite artist and the winning piece of art is exhibited at Mazza with an accompanying plaque that bears the school’s name. The closing assembly provides an opportunity for the students to exhibit what they’ve learned. Through songs, skits, and artwork, the children often reveal a comprehensive knowledge of fields such as book publishing, artistic styles, and media. The flexibility, imagination, and inquisitiveness that the schools exhibit in projects such as the Mazza School Extension program are an invaluable contribution to the hfe of the museum.

Jill Olthouse is enrolled in the Bachelor Of Secondary Education program at Bowling Green State University. Her mother, Terry Olthouse, is the education coordinator for Mazza Galleria, in Findlay, OH.

Olthouse, Jill. “Avenues for the Imagination,” The Docent Educator 8.3 (Spring 1999): 14-15.

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