August 10, 2010

Children’s art scholar finds wartime treasure on newsprint

Joe Fischer is no stranger to art. He’s no stranger to children’s art. A Berkeley resident and former UC Berkeley professor, Joe Fischer has written five books on Indonesian art and culture. He spent 25 years visiting and studying Indonesia, and he has been curator of many exhibits on Indonesian traditional art and children’s art.

Joe Fischer with furniture from World War II Richmond shipyard children's art program

Joe Fischer is also no stranger to war. He served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater during World War II and visited the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki within two weeks after their destruction by Allied atomic bombs.

So when Joe heard about the rich collection of children’s art from the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards child care centers, needless to say, he was intrigued. The more he explored the boxes full of children’s paintings and cut-and-paste artwork preserved at the Richmond Museum of History, the more fascinated he became.

Joe quickly understood the significance of the children’s uninhibited observations of life on the home front. Given the creation in 2000 of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front national park in Richmond, Joe’s passion for bringing the art to light seemed to hit the right note. Sharing his enthusiasm with the staff of the new park, they agreed the museum had indeed captured a national treasure-trove.

The little noticed collection of 5,000-plus pieces brims with creativity,individuality, emotion and small-child confidence. Joe’s diligent study and interpretation of the art — and the enthusiastic support of the museum board of directors — culminated this summer in the publication of “Children’s Art & Children’s Words.” The book includes 185 color plates of the artwork, as well as direct quotes from the 2- to 12-year-olds about their masterpieces as told to their teachers.

Focus on individual artists

“The focus (of this book) is on the paintings of individual children, comments by them and their teachers, and the environment in which this took place,” Joe says in the introduction. “The child care program in all its various aspects was an extraordinary educational model. It provided care, nurture, materials, and creative outlets for thousands of children. Such a comprehensive child care program had probably never existed in the United States before the war nor has one been developed since, he adds.

The children’s art collection, which includes pieces from 1943 through 1966, only exists due to the foresight of the late Monica Haley, longtime art director of the child care centers. She retained the children’s work and their comments conscientiously, realizing their historical value. Subsequent to her retirement in 1966, Haley donated the entire collection to the Richmond Museum of History. Richmond’s child care centers’ art created after that date has been lost to history. Joe devotes a whole chapter of the book to Haley.

Kaiser child care breaks new ground

The Richmond child care program began in 1943 through the collaboration of Henry J. Kaiser, the U.S. Maritime Commission and the Richmond school district. Kaiser, who ran the shipyards, saw the critical need for high quality, around-the-clock care for the children of mothers working on ships. Although society had frowned on mothers working outside the home, the war urgency put that attitude on hold.

Kaiser worked through the Maritime Commission to obtain funds to build and subsidize the centers, and the school district received federal funds. The Lanham Act set up wartime funding to help war production communities, like Richmond, accommodate ballooning populations. The federal money earmarked initially for fire stations, roads, schools, and other local services, was also approved for construction and operation of child care centers.

Veronica Rodriguez, Isabel Jenkins Ziegler, and Pavlos Salamasidis of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park with child's art easel from World War II Kaiser Shipyards child care center

The Richmond child care program had 14 sites during the war years. Set up by the best child care experts of the time, including Catherine Landreth, PhD, of the UC Berkeley Institute of Child Welfare, the program was groundbreaking. The buildings were thoughtfully designed to make the environment comfortable and healthy for children.

The routine included a health check, nutritious meals planned by a dietitian, plenty of rest, outside play, and lessons in art and music. There were sleeping rooms for naps and overnight stays, child-sized sinks and toilets, lockers, and a sick room to isolate ailing students. The school district took care in making the experience educational and stimulating. For all this, the parents paid 50 cents a day, 60 cents if they had breakfast.

Bubble bursts when war ends

After the war, the shipyards closed and the federal funding for child care centers dried up. But there were still many women in Richmond and many other places who wanted or needed to continue working. So the Richmond community lobbied the federal and state government to continue the funding. They were successful, and California became one of only few states that continued child care after the war.

Maritime Child Development Center, 10th and Florida in Richmond, to be restored for use as school and museum

At the same time, the Kaiser Shipyards child care programs in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, shut down completely. The Northwest child care centers, also influenced by UC Berkeley child development experts, did not have the community support needed to keep them open. However, experience in these child care centers contributed invaluably to the study of child development, and the legacy informs current practice.

The Richmond schools continued to operate preschools on essentially the same wartime principles until around 1967.   A variety of federal, state and local funding sources, including Head Start, have continued a semblance of the program to the present.

One of the original Kaiser-built centers, the Maritime Child Development Center at 10th and Florida streets in Richmond, has been designated a national historical landmark. Renovation of the center is under way, and Rosie the Riveter/World War II National Historical Park museum curators are collecting and interpreting historical artifacts, such as furniture from the original wartime program. The center, to house classrooms and a National Park Service museum, is scheduled to open in 2011.