Tuesday, August 6, 1996
Artful idea: Let's teach kids to work

The Cincinnati Enquirer

This summer, about a hundred kids may get the idea that they have to work for a living. Better than that, they may come away with the impression that you don't have to hate your job.

And just for icing on the cake, they might learn how to get along with people who don't look just like them, who come from other neighborhoods, other schools, other cultures.

It's called Artworks, but ''it's not art camp,'' says Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who started the program after she saw one like it in Chicago. ''It's not summer camp. It's jobs.'' OK, OK. I get it. At least, I probably will as soon as I've talked to Tamara Harkavy.

Fresh product

We met at the side door of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, across from the white tents of the temporary Artworks campus. She's the director, and I liked her right away. I forgave her immediately for looking smashing in a long skirt and cowboy boots, something I would be arrested for.

Tamara is, you should excuse the expression, cool.

You can tell that the kids think so, too. Ages 14 through 18, they're exceedingly harsh in judgments of this nature. Not that there's a whole lot of discussion. They're too busy. This is work, really it is, even though the product is not computer chips or widgets.

The product is art. Paintings, colorful candlesticks, decorative Japanese bound books, sculpture, handmade clocks, furniture. It's all for sale, reasonably priced. It's shipped in fresh daily from the manufacturer, often at work only 30 feet away.

''It's meaningful employment with tangible outcome,'' Tamara Harkavy says. Then she relaxes and says, ''The hook is that there's no hook. It's just a genuinely neat thing that's happening.''

Well, OK, but I bet she had to go with the ''meaningful'' thing when she went out hustling money.

Funding for Artworks comes from private foundations and fund raising by the sponsoring Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. The Citizens Committee on Youth, the Cincinnati Public Schools and a who's who of businesses also pitched in. This year's program will cost about $298,000.

The faculty - management team has spectacular credentials, coming from the University of Cincinnati's School of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning, theCincinnati Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center. Its director has a master's degree in urban planning, and it seems to me that she betrays some bias toward the urban design tent. Of course, I could be mistaken.

But I know for a fact that she's crazy about Eryn Herndon. So am I. So is everybody. She is a sophomore at Walnut Hills, and I had unworthy suspicions that they'd rented her for the day. She's that perfect. Articulate, bright, funny. Did I mention bright? Well, let me mention it again. She's a steal at $5 an hour.

Urban gateway

Originally in charge of landscaping, she has become the sparkplug and spokes-student for an ''urban gateway'' on Central Parkway between the West End and Over-the-Rhine. Now a bedraggled 55-foot strip of median, it will become a wonderful slice of urban art. Decorative grasses, flowers, sculpture. The students talked to historians, artists and neighbors. They're using recycled materials and completely original energy.

''It looks like we didn't have any limitations,'' Eryn says, although, of course, part of the deal is that they worked with very practical limitations. Money, personnel, the rules.

If you get a chance between now and Aug. 23, take a walk down Sycamore to 14th Street in Over-the-Rhine. Look for some big white tents. Bring money. In the words of the artists and marketers, you can find ''cool stuff, big bargains.''

So, the plan is to create jobs for artists, who happen to be kids. They're supposed to learn how to apply for a job, then show up on time every day and do it. Eventually, they'll make enough money from the sale of their wares so that the next batch of kids can work. Kind of symmetrical, really. In fact, I like to think of it as modern art.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.