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Arts Beat: Santa Maria children's museum aims to put the A in STEAM

Tyler Pratt/KCBX News
Oliver Patterson and his dad Jonathan make "moon sand," a doughy substance that mixes art and science, at the Santa Maria Valley Disovery Museum.

Many have lamented the disappearance of the arts from public school curriculums. Over the past few decades, there’s been an emphasis on STEM—science, technology, engineering and math. But one local institution encourages turning STEM to STEAM by including the arts.

Laura-Susan Thomas is an art teacher and former Disney Imagineer. She’s standing with a young child over a table of crayons, markers, paper, and fluorescent paint.

“Now we get to add some splatter paint,” Thomas says, putting pink paint on an toothbrush and guiding the young attendee. “You can do this at home, too. It’s like petting a dog. You’re gonna get your finger and pat really hard. See how it makes like magic, right?”

Credit Tyler Pratt/KCBX News
Folklórico dancers from Righetti High School perform for the children at the annual Nat Fast Children's Arts Day.

Thomas and other local artists were recently invited to the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museumto teach children arts that aren’t normally offered, like comic book drawing and making glitter tattoos. It was part of the annual Nat Fast Free Children’s Arts Day at the museum.

[Nat Fast] was a beloved local artist,” program director Amy Blasco said. "He did a lot of art throughout the community and was an absolutely wonderful man, a renaissance man who loved the arts and sharing his arts with the community.”

Fast, who died in 2013, helped create the Santa Maria Arts Council. You can see Fast’s watercolors displayed throughout the museum. Blasco said it was important to Fast that children be exposed to the arts.

“The earlier you introduce children to the arts, the more well-rounded they are going to be in all aspects of life,” Blasco said.

The Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum is the only children’s museum in north Santa Barbara County. Blasco said the sensory and and tactile experiences the arts provide are crucial to their development, but aren’t available in public schools to the extent they once were. 

“The state of the economy and politics...[means] that getting arts into the schools is becoming more and more challenging,” Blasco said. “That’s why it’s crucial organizations like the Discovery Museum can step in and fill that gap … we really want to make sure we put the A in STEAM. Because people hear a lot about STEM...but we’re all about STEAM. Making sure the A is in there.”

The Nat Fast Children’s Art Day is one of the free events the museum periodically offers.

"We try to offer free days to our community because we do realize that while we keep our admission price as low as possible, at six dollars a person that can add up up for large families," Blasco said.

Credit Tyler Pratt/KCBX
Professional illustrator Irene Flores shows Logan Collin of Lompoc how to draw comic book hero Spiderman on a tablet.

One of the most popular activities is the "moon sand" station. Children and parents pack around exhibits director Leslie Anderson to sculpt the sandy dough made out of cornstarch and hair conditioner.

“It’s science and baking and making,” Anderson said. “It shows that regular items that they have in their home, they can mix together and make something really great.”

Seeing children and families come together like this is one of Blasco’s favorite things about these events.

“I was exposed to theater, music and visual mediums at a young age,” Blasco said. “So the fact that I’m able to share that with other children who maybe don’t get that experience for whatever reason, it’s such a special thing to share with children.”

Next January will mark the 10th anniversary of Nat Fast Free Children's Art Day. But the Discovery Museum has other free events on the calendar between now and then, including an afternoon called the "Nutrition Expedition" coming up on Feburary 10, 2019.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible with funding from The Coastal Awakening Project, conserving a spirit of creative experimentation among Central Coast inhabitants.

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