The first rains of the season have officially arrived, creating a soft pounding noise outside the art gallery. Inside, Max Hirschfield’s carnival colored sculptures with painted skulls pepper the walls and hang from the ceiling, creating a festive atmosphere in contrast with the dreary weather. Hirschfield, a self-taught artist, is leading an informal tour of her exhibition Momento Mori at The Frameworks/Caruso-Woods Gallery to a group of attentive students from Cesar Ch¡vez Charter School (CCCS). “Why do you like skulls so much?” asks one of the sixth graders. “That’s a good question,” says Hirschfield and she pauses to think. “Well,” she answers, “I like skulls because we all have them in common, but it’s also something that’s different in everyone.” The children nod knowingly.
Although Momento Mori is Hirschfield’s first solo exhibition in Santa Barbara, art has been an irresistible passion throughout her life. A self-professed enthusiast of Outsider Art “because it represents artists who use everyday materials to create their art,” Hirschfield is a champion of a democratic type of art making, one where the artists relies on intuition and a creative drive to explore personal expression with whatever materials are available. As a result, Hirschfield’s work combines handcrafted elements, like woodcarving and decorative beads, with more traditional methods, including printmaking, to create large-scale sculptural works that reveal the joy in their creation.
This particular series features a secular Day of the Dead theme, with brightly-colored skulls painted on Plexiglas comprising the focal point for each piece. Each skull is laser cut, painted from behind in layers, mounted on wood, and then affixed to a background of painted yardsticks. Adorned with decorative beads and cabochons-small glass beads that Hirschfield paints as eyes-the sculptures borrow from Mexican art their way of exaggerating nature. Flames, birds, butterflies, and snakes appear in many of her works, giving Hirschfield’s sculptures a Garden of Eden appeal.
Hirschfield takes pride in the accessibility of her work and its visceral and tactile appeal, and it was precisely these qualities that lead to the partnership with Cesar Ch¡vez Charter School. Hirschfield’s involvement with the school’s sixth graders began when CCCS art teacher Kathi Scarminach bought a piece of Hirschfield’s work at an annual Dia de los Muertos group show at Muddy Waters. Scarminach immediately recognized the potential of Hirschfield’s work to appeal to young people, and asked her to be a part of the school’s artist in residency program, a new temporary position that was funded by an anonymous donor.
As part of the residency, Hirschfield agreed to give CCCS sixth graders a tour of her exhibition at Frameworks and to follow up with a series of classroom visits over the course of a month, culminating in each child creating his or her own skull on Plexiglas. Come 2009, Hirschfield will remain an artist-in-residence at the school, working with younger children. “This program provides a place for our students to feel successful about art-making,” explained Scarminach. “The goal is for them to enjoy the process and to produce something to be proud of and take home with them.”
Scarminach shares Hirschfield’s philosophy that art-making is more about finding an outlet for a passion and less about official degrees and exhibitions. “It was important to the program to work with an artist who uses materials that you can find in any household,” says Scarminach. “It proves to the students that art is something you can do at home, even without a lot of money.” Scarminach was also drawn to Hirschfield’s experience working with various demographics of students, including 10 years as a volunteer art specialist working with children with cancer.
Between tours of the exhibit, Hirschfield chats to the adults gathered in the gallery about her reason for working with CCCS. “As a parent, I’ve learned the value of the arts,” she says, “and want to extend that value into the classroom.” On that note, she returns to business, guiding the second group of students around the gallery to see her work. From the looks on their faces, it’s clear they’re intent on taking in every word she says.