Monday, October 20, 2014
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Art lessons from China

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Fast food and liberty are common themes among the artwork of Chinese third graders. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Even as American businesses are trying to forge business links in China, so are children in the Red River Valley. For the past three years, elementary school children in Fargo, through a unique exchange program, have broken through some of the barriers between the U.S. And China.

Fargo, N.D. — A group of second graders is visiting the Creative Arts Studio in Fargo. As the students wander from display to display, they're encouraged to pick up some of the exhibits and examine them. There are watercolors, handmade musical instruments, and even Chinese money. The kids are having a ball.

Rob Arneson, a third grade teacher at Clara Barton Elementary School, watches and smiles. Arneson says most of the artwork is by third graders at Clara Barton's sister school, the Beijing New Oriental Foreign Language School in China. He says the artwork is fascinating and unusual.

"We ended up with a 600-foot long bolt of cotton painted with acrylic. And it was their perception of the United States of America," says Arneson. "That's why this is titled "French Fries to Wontons: A Journey of 6,000 Miles."

Arneson says the banner was too big to be displayed in one piece, so it was cut into smaller lengths featuring a few of the panels. The Chinese students painted their view of America -- and there are some surprising combinations.

"There's a beautiful picture of the state Capitol, and floating above it is the golden arches from McDonalds," says Arneson. "That's what they're thinking. They think of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and there are some other beautiful panels in there of western Montana."

Arneson says there are cowboys and Wild West shootouts, and Mickey Mouse appears a lot too. But Arneson says the kids also show a serious side in their work.

"Another theme that sticks out a lot is New York City. After 9/11, they became very aware of that," says Arneson.

Arneson says the Beijing New Oriental Foreign Language School has exchanges with several schools in Europe, but only one in America, and that's Clara Barton in Fargo.

The relationship began three years ago, when a retired music teacher from Fargo spent a year in China teaching. Now the Fargo school sends art work to Beijing, too.

"We send over two to three boxes a year of any kind of student creation," says Arneson. "We have a cookbook this year that one of the fifth grade teachers made."

Arneson says items sent to China are put on public display. He says the exchange program is fun for students, but is also a powerful educational tool.

"This is making them step out of the box, this is making kids step out," says Arneson. "Even as a third grader, realizing there is much more to the world than just Fargo and just the United States."

Arneson says the art exchange teaches kids about how to establish relationships with people of different cultures. He says it shows kids that through their art, they can make a lasting impression.

"What is going to be put in China is a natural piece of my work that I've done, and it's going to be there forever, it does not come back," says Arneson. "The goal would eventually be to do student exchanges. Kids at this age, (they) could become a student exchange."

Arneson says the program is also popular with parents. They see the art exchange as way for their children to have a global learning experience.

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