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San Francisco children explore artistic careers first hand

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In an enclosed garden on a hillside in San Francisco, a group of excited fourth and fifth graders is getting an unusual lesson in what it means to be an artist. Sculptor Ruth Asawa and her son Paul Lanier are demonstrating their art as they mold a giant clay head of actor and football star O.J. Simpson.

All eyes are agog as mother and son work the golden clay and then spray the surface with a coat of acetone. Afterward the children head down a stone path into Ms. Asawa's glass and redwood studio, where they peek in on the other giant clay heads of San Francisco celebrities that are part of the sculptor's latest project.

Later, after they have seen and heard about a variety of objects created on the premises, a girl with red braids asks Ms. Asawa when she first decided to become an artist.

Wiping her hands on her already clay-dusted jeans, the Japanese-American sculptor, whose outdoor works are as much a part of San Francisco as cable cars and Coit Tower, replies, ''When I was about your age. Becoming an artist is something that takes a whole lifetime.''

Because of Ruth Asawa and a program she was instrumental in founding 14 years ago, the Alvarado Arts Workshop, schoolchildren throughout San Francisco have a unique opportunity to learn at an early age what becoming an artist is all about. Over the years the workshop has brought an array of professional artists -- dancers, poets, actors, musicians, and painters into 80 percent of the local public schools.

Just a few blocks away from Ruth Asawa's studio and home is Alvarado School, the place where it all began. In the summer of 1968 she and a neighbor, art historian Sally Woodbridge, started a program in which children worked with the sculptor in the school cafeteria to make figures of baker's clay.

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