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Artisan Toys Celebrate Wonder, Wit, Whimsy

An Arkansas exhibition honors aesthetic over commercial approach

TOYS are everywhere. During the holidays, television blares ads for new plastic dolls equipped to talk or change hair color, while more toy weapons promise hours of militaristic ``fun'' for little boys.

Walking down the aisles of a local toy store, one can see hundreds of toys. But the single element in short supply - though not entirely absent - is wonder. Many toys are so realistic, they leave little to the imagination.

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But when artists make toys, their playful objects incorporate wonder. One-of-a-kind metal and wood sculptures designed for fun may be whimsical or clever.

Created with a spirit of ingenuity, these kinetic toys can delight and stimulate both child and adult. Fashioned with original building materials, they can provide years of aesthetic satisfaction along with constructive play.

Once a year, The Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, Ark. seeks out the most original and creative playthings to display in a festive tradition, begun 21 years ago.

``Toys Designed by Artists'' (through January 9) brings in holiday visitors by the thousands, as parents and pedagogues enjoy the exhibition as much as the kids they escort, says Alan DuBois, the center's director of decorative arts.

``[Artistic toys] began with the Alexander Calder `Circus' '' in the late '20s and early '30s,'' Mr. DuBois says. ``His circus toys are still at the Whitney.... We average 2,500 viewers a month, but at this time of year we do much better; attendance goes way up.''

Some toys are designed specifically for adults. Too expensive, complex, sophisticated, or fragile for the rough handling of children, these toys are designed for executives and collectors. Nevertheless, children love to look at them.

``There are others that are safe - designed to be used as toys,'' DuBois says. ``But safety is not necessarily one of the things we look for.''

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The criteria, he says, are subjective. The museum staff looks for attractive works that intrigue the imagination and pique curiousity. They must be well-made, clever, and original.

The toys may range from naive, folk-type objects to sophisticated art works. But whimsy and wit are big factors, DuBois says.

``One of the things we stress to the visiting children is that they can make toys themselves,'' he says. ``They don't have to rely on the commercial world. These toys are one of a kind, and they reflect individuality. Another thing is that they are often constructed with ready-mades - found objects. I describe it to the children as recycling.''

He describes one of the puzzles he assembled with a group of children - a broken teapot that was meant to resemble an ancient artifact. The kids, he says, loved the challenge.

`I THINK there is a little bit of child in all of us,'' DuBois says. ``I think that whimsy appeals to everyone, regardless of age. Everyone gets a chuckle over these things. And then, perhaps the cleverness - a certain admiration for the cleverness.''

He points to Michelle Dent's two paper sculpture entries this year, both based on her dog Oat's peculiar looks and personality. One is called ``Dog House,'' a small house with Oat's head, paws, and tail emerging from it. ``She has a trick sense of scale, a wonderful play on scale and on the relationship of the dog to house,'' Dubois says.

Ms. Dent's other toy is Oat-as-roadster. Oat is a Jack Russel terrier, built low to the ground. His namesake toy has a mouth that opens to reveal not gas in the gas tank, but dog fuel - kibbles.

``My dog is so low to the ground you can see all these little bulges - Arnold Schwartzenegger with spots,'' Dent says. ``He is funny. I've done drawings of him that weren't funny, but any sculpture of him would have to be hilarious....

``I like the word `wonderment,''' she continues. ``The kids get to look at something very familiar to them [paper], but they look at it in a different way.

``I think that's one of the definitions of art. If you can look at something in a different way than you have before, then maybe it approaches being a work of art.'' Dent's toys are too fragile for child's play, though she does make other toys appropriate for children.

Every toy Frank Cheatham makes is designed for vigorous play. He makes the kind of toys he would like to play with - and has for the last 50 years. An art professor at Texas Tech University, his submission this year was a construction set of metal bars and joints coated in plastic.

``It's like being a little kid again,'' he says. ``It's really enjoyable, because you get to play with them and make them work the way you want them to work. I've always done that. As a child, I made up toys and then constructed them.'' He says one of the great problems with commercial toys is that they have no aesthetic value.

Aesthetics is what an art show is necessarily about. Dean Luchner and Anne Wood collaborate on kinetic toys, placing aesthetics first.

``Sometimes the toys are kind of personal,'' Mr. Luchner says. ``But we also like to use symbols. An anchor is a symbol of hope and security; a flower, growth. A corked bottle might be read many ways, but we think of it as potential.''

Even their serious sculpture is toy-inspired, he says. ``We want to make reference to play. Our sculptures are about play and humor and entertainment. Those are qualities we are interested in.''

Toys do have a function, says Mr. Cheathum, who refers to his toys as ``practical art.''

``I feel very strongly that play is an important part of our lives,'' he says. ``If you lose your ability to play it's like losing your ability to laugh. The world becomes a very dreary, mundane place.''

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