Sketching to Jazz and Judo: the Young People’s Art Center

Did you know that Cranbrook Art Museum’s educational partnerships with surrounding communities date back over sixty years? Long before the current museum trend of interactive educational programs for youth audiences, the Academy of Art and the Junior League of Birmingham had an idea:  the Young People’s Art Center (YPAC).

Young People’s Art Center logo, from the 1962 enrollment form. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The year was 1958, and the Museum had recently changed names to the Academy of Art Galleries, shifting focus to feature more contemporary art practices. With that, came the desire to encourage young visitors to express their own artistic voices—participatory education, rather than simply art appreciation. Documenting the program’s first year, a June 1959 Detroit News Pictorial Magazine feature noted that YPAC “is fast gaining a national reputation for its lively approach to art education.”

In particular, it was Henry Booth (Academy Board of Trustees Chairman), Wallace Mitchell (Head of Galleries), and Zoltan Sepeshy (Academy Director) that approached the Junior League with a plan. In a 1957 report by Mitchell during the Center’s development phase, he states, “ The personnel of the Cranbrook Academy of Art has become increasingly aware of the growing country-wide interest in the visual arts and has long wished to more directly participate in the fostering and guiding of this interest as expressed in our community.” Seeking support from the Junior League, this “unique opportunity to bring to the children of Oakland County an integrated program in art education which concerns itself with the totality of the art experience” was green-lighted for the following year.

Children watch a judo demonstrator as part of a class exercise. Erik Strylander, photographer. From the article “Sketching to Jazz and Judo,” Detroit News Pictorial Magazine, June 28, 1959.

A perfect partnership was formed. The Academy would provide leadership, through the support of its trustees, director, and faculty; the Junior League would provide the necessary finances. Naturally, with so many talented artists on campus, there was no lack of creativity or helping hands! Junior League members were also heavily involved, providing volunteer docents to conduct gallery tours and assist with classes, both of which were located on the ground level of the Museum below the Academy Library.

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Three C’s: China, Cranbrook, and the Crane

It is generally known that our founder, George Booth, named our community “Cranbrook” after the Booth’s ancestral home in Kent, England. Even the portion of the Rouge River which flows through the property was called the “Crane” by the Booth family. I’m certain that Booth must have been aware of the derivation of the Cranbrook name, which began with the Old English words “cran broc” which means “crane marsh.” The spelling, which evolved over time from Cranebroca to Cranebroc then Cranebrok, eventually became Cranbrooke.

On a recent trip to China, I was surprised when I saw large bronze cranes at the Teng Wang Pavilion in Jiangxi province’s capital city of Nanchang. They reminded me of the crane iconography at Cranbrook. While I had previously noticed the use of cranes as a subject in Chinese paintings, I never really thought about their meaning. The Chinese have a symbol for everything including life, death, and immortality. Our guide informed us that the crane symbolizes good health, longevity, and auspiciousness to the Chinese people.

Photo taken at Teng Wang Pavilion, Nanchang, China, Jun 2017. Courtesy of the author.

A crane can also represent happiness and a soaring spirit. A crane that is shown outstretched wings and one leg raised stands for longevity while one shown flying towards the sun is illustrative of a wish or hope for social advancement. There is even a form of martial arts called the “White Crane Style” originated by the female martial artist Fang Qi Niang during the Qing Dynasty.

Back to Cranbrook! References to cranes have been widely used over the past 100 years, many in relation to Cranbrook School. Perhaps the most obvious is the use of The Crane as the title for the Cranbrook School for Boys school newspaper, which won by popular vote at the first meeting of the School League in 1928. (Today the paper is known as The Crane-Clarion since the merger with Kingswood School in 1985.) Below are block prints by Cranbrook School students found on the covers of the 1928 papers. In mid-March 1930, The Crane switched to a new format and instead of being mimeographed, was printed by The Cranbrook Press at the Academy of Art. To go along with this new format, a logo for the paper was designed, likely by art editor Alfred Davock.

The bronze crane inserts for the dining hall chairs for Cranbrook School (designed by Eero Saarinen) are still in use today. Henry Scripps Booth used the symbol of the crane as a directional marker on his architectural drawings. The Academy of Art Administration Building (designed by Swanson and Booth) features a crane brick pattern on the south façade of the building, and Eliel Saarinen designed two “bird motifs” for the bottom of the stairs at the First Arts and Crafts building. The drawings, in the collection of Cranbrook Archives, show Saarinen’s plan to use light and dark bluestone to delineate the body of the cranes with red slate for the eyes and black slate for the beaks. As recently as 1994, Katherine McCoy, co-chair of the Academy’s design department, developed the current Cranbrook community logo which features a contemporary symbol of the crane rising out of a large “C” for Cranbrook. It is shown below, alongside a humorous 1930 illustration for a column heading in The Crane.

While Cranbrook’s history with the crane may not be as long-standing as that of the Chinese, one might argue that we, too, have incorporated the crane into our community’s culture as a symbol not only of longevity, but one of respect for the legacy of our founders and our community’s heritage.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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