Connecting children around the world through the international language of art
Paintbrush Diplomacy with its vibrant collection of children’s paintings from around the world has found a new home … at the San Mateo County History Museum in Redwood City, California.
Under the restored, stained glass dome of the old county courthouse, the children’s paintings in the rotunda gallery speak of their life and culture in countries as distant as China, Bulgaria, India, Scotland, Qatar, Thailand, Iraq, Zambia and the United States.
This first exhibit, on display now through summer, celebrates the partnership between the museum and the nonprofit children’s art organization. The museum has agreed to house Paintbrush Diplomacy’s permanent collection, says Mitch Postel, the museum’s executive director. It’s the largest collection of foreign children’s art in the United States with close to 2,000 children’s paintings from 100 countries.
The vision behind Paintbrush Diplomacy is the same today as it was 30 years ago when artist Char Pribuss of San Mateo and her engineer husband Rudy started the classroom-to-classroom exchange of children’s art almost by accident.
The Paintbrush vision is to “build communication amongst the young of the world [through exchanges of paintings and writings] so that when they become adults they will do a little better job than we as adults have done at times.”
“It sounds a little naive, but it works,” says Char, who adds that the hope for peace lies with the children.
Char and Rudy, who was born behind the Berlin Wall, loved to travel. (He died in 1997.) Once a year they traveled for three weeks while their four children were watched over by their grandparents, Oma and Opa.
Char always brought along her paints and sketch pads, and would sketch or paint wherever they went. Children would flock around her to watch.
Char recalls a significant moment — “like an epiphany” — that happened in China in 1978 after the couple had slipped through the Bamboo Curtain via Canadian Airlines to the People’s Republic of China, off-limits to U.S. citizens at the time.
As Char sketched tiny fishing boats, bamboo shrubs and the tropical growth of Cheun Chau Island, several little girls in red-quilted jackets hovered around her like little birds and nestled at her feet, curious about what she was doing.
“Their bright colors and shining eyes moved Rudy to say, ‘No need for speech, art seems to be an international language,'” recalls Char. “Something indescribable passed between us. We were never the same two people again. We knew then that we were deeply committed to carrying the fruits of children’s creativity and imagination around the world.”
Char and Rudy brought out of China 60 rice paper brush paintings by children. These were displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and were part of the Paintbrush collection featured in the Smithsonian’s three-year traveling exhibit of children’s art. The Pribusses appeared on “The Today Show.” The UNICEF calendar in 1992 featured art from the Paintbrush collection.
Children’s paintings from their collection have been exhibited at the United Nations in New York, the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., and at other venues across the country, including museums, city halls, libraries, schools and art galleries.
“We traveled on a shoestring,” says Char. “We didn’t have a red carpet, important people surrounding us, or a TV crew. We were just a mom and pop operation like the Fuller Brush man with a portfolio full of children’s paintings.”
She and Rudy visited 61 countries, penetrated the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, navigated the streets of India and the jungles of Papua, New Guinea, and were thrown off a train crossing a Czechoslovakian forest. On their last trip abroad together in 1993, they gained an audience with Pope John in the Vatican and presented children’s paintings from his home town of Krakow in Poland.
The Pribusses were welcomed in children’s classrooms around the world, and they told their stories behind Paintbrush Diplomacy. They brought home paintings and letters, created by the children, as gifts to be exchanged with other children — classroom to classroom and school to school.
Dick Sperisen of Atherton, now coordinator emeritus for art education/school design in the San Mateo County Office of Education, remembers when Char and Rudy came back from an early trip with some children’s art. They brought paintings to his office at the former Peninsula School in San Mateo where he was the art coordinator for the San Mateo City School District.
Impressed with the quality and content of the art, Mr. Sperisen recalls telling the travelers, “Gee, when you go on another trip, pick up some more.”
Later, he worked closely with Char and Rudy, helping get school exchanges started in San Mateo and other schools in the county.
“Rudy was a wonderful fellow who became very serious about their art project, a very new concept at the time,” says Mr. Sperisen. Their art was like a “new baby,” precious to them, and they were excited to share it, he says.
“Art is an international language,” says art educator Sperisen. “Regardless of where the work was created, you will see that growth and development of the young child will be parallel across cultures.” The only difference will be the subject matter, reflecting where the children live, their culture and what they value most, he says. The basic line structure, shape and form are all similar at each age.
Drawing, he adds, is the first step for reading. Children in their drawings are emulating what they’re seeing before they can express it in written words. Their images give an insight into the color, shape and form that youngsters elsewhere are creating, he says.
Burt Norall, a former principal of Portola Valley’s Ormondale School, remembers Char and Rudy Pribuss visiting classrooms at the K-5 school about 20 years ago. They brought along paintings by children in China and Thailand, and told stories about the paintings and their travels. Ormondale children then created paintings that Principal Norall delivered to the Pribuss home in San Mateo. They became part of a classroom exchange in China.
“I really liked the whole idea. Children’s art is special because it communicates with all ages, not just children,” says Mr. Norall. He says these art exchanges should be encouraged because “that’s the way to break down barriers” between people and countries.
Paintbrush Diplomacy took on a life of its own. Classroom exchanges multiplied and corporations began staging exhibits. “We had a tiger by the tail,” says Char. Paintings kept coming in from all over, filling closets, space under beds and the bathtubs of the Pribuss home.
With help from friends, Paintbrush Diplomacy was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1986. Its collection was housed with the International Children’s Art Museum in the World Trade Center, located in the San Francisco Ferry Building. When the building was closed for renovation in 1999, the Paintbrush collection was stored in a warehouse in Santa Clara.
Sheri Sobrato, who lives in Atherton and San Francisco, stepped in to help build up the Paintbrush organization. She recruited new board members, and served as president until recently. The new board president is Carolyn Bechtel of Atherton. Board member Louise Valeur Bragato of Menlo Park serves as executive director.
“We’ve gone through many changes,” says Char. “The collection is extremely important. It gives us the capability to have exhibits, continue exchanges and to work on some pilot projects [in collaboration with other organizations].”
Most recently, Paintbrush Diplomacy participated in “Architects of Peace: Visions of Hope in Words and Images,” an exhibit at Stanford University featuring Michael Collopy’s photographs of peacemakers. This traveling exhibit is now on display at Santa Clara University in the science museum. The Paintbrush exhibit is in the Sobrato Family Residence, an office and student residence, on the Santa Clara University campus.
In the works are exchanges with school children in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries. Paintings from the Paintbrush collection recently were on display in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
“We need to keep it [Paintbrush Diplomacy] going and let the children do the rest,” says Char. “This is my hope for peace. We have a wonderful vehicle to bring some positives into the negatives of the world.”
More about Paintbrush Diplomacy
Paintbrush Diplomacy’s exhibit of children’s paintings from around the world is on display through summer at the San Mateo County History Museum, located at 777 Hamilton St. in Redwood City, California.
A special event for families in honor of Paintbrush Diplomacy takes place Saturday, May 17, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the museum. It’s called Family Past Times, a quarterly program designed for children and their parents.
Children may participate in a series of five hands-on art projects to help them create images of their experiences. They also can view the Paintbrush Diplomacy exhibit in the rotunda and learn about experiences of children in other countries. The program is free with museum admission.
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for seniors and youth, ages 6-12. Group tours are available by calling 299-0104.
By Marjorie Mader, Almanac Staff Writer