Toy stories 

Some fun, some grim.

PINK PANTHER: Award winner.
  • PINK PANTHER: Award winner.

What’s on the mind of the playful artists who crafted objects for the Arkansas Arts Center’s “Toys Designed by Artists” exhibit? Same as what the rest of us worry about: war, civil rights and horrors we can’t comprehend even though they’re printed in black and white in the newspaper. The ambiguous path technology is taking us down. Death. And a barrel of monkeys.

The monkeys are the quintessential child’s toy one expects to see at the Arts Center’s annual show, now in its 33rd year. Jara McKinney’s are wired and stuffed and covered in brown plaid and corduroy fabrics cut with pinking shears and stitched with blue thread. They can hang, of course, from their wooden barrel.

Elegant wit is another trademark, which is what Kristin Lora’s sterling silver music box is. A tiny plastic Pink Panther sits atop the music box inset with a pink gemstone. The heppest of all hep cats is more than suave enough for the toy, which plays the Pink Panther’s song when its small crank is turned. Lora won a purchase award with the cat.

This year’s show carries a hefty load in that category of toys you won’t see played with on the happy hearth at home. Many pieces in the exhibit — and it is one of the finest ever put together, thanks perhaps to an increased interest in showing and the jurying of Kenneth R. Trapp, formerly of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery — are artistic propaganda, comments on U.S. society. There are too many children playing at soldier, they say, safe commanders and innocent soldiers alike.

Robert B.M. Lee, for example, would teach the ABCs by putting them on wooden bomb blocks that fit nicely into their wooden bomb block chest. Jacqueline Brignoli’s pull toy that hauls identical mice dressed in identical business suits by a rope with a dollar sign handle is a lesson in capitalism. Randi Romo’s “Game of Life for Undocumented Players/Ages Children to Adult” spin toy may land on barbed wire, or on Our Lady of Guadalupe. Greg Blethen’s carousel has a buzzsaw blade for a top, and its riders — soldiers and superheroes — go round in circles, rather than making progress.

Also not for the squeamish: Tim Waldrop’s “The Way Kids See Things,” a casket being borne by cylindrical wood pallbearers on wheels; a whole set of chimerical creatures including a tortured doll that will remind one’s child of “Toy Story”; and Erika Kymia Nawabi’s “Running Still,” in which two legs support a torso in the form of an open box riddled with earthworms. A lamb toy — and a ladder — take the place of a head. Sweet.

Three-dimensional puns abound — such as the ceramic ears of corn held together with a chain (Jared Aubel’s “Corn Chucks”), the horse and rider made of dangling spoons and wooden meat-tenderizers (Mindi M. Jones’ “Giddy Up Grub”), a tennis ball stuck all around with pins (Daniel Erwin’s “Pin Ball”).

There too many fine toy toys to list, but mention should be made of a foam dragon-like creature gracefully carved by Richard Johnson, and David Edger’s “Snuggle Serpent,” made of recycled plastic bottles, its neck made of cut up Snuggle Diaper softener and Spray and Wash bottles and a segmented torso of plastic bottles with detergent spouts rattling inside. An amazing collection of handmade wooden blocks in maple, walnut, locust, and cherry in traditional block shapes and turned knobs form Charlotte Kinser’s 16-by-20-by-20-inch “Castle.” We didn’t get to see Bobby Campbell’s toy operated, but we guess the metal pieces suspended from the strings in “Transpinner: Skunk” turn into the animal when wooden tongs are squeezed. Other large wood objects include the skeleton of a block with the letter “A” floating on one side and a train on another (April Calloway’s “Block”) and Jay D. Miles “Lulubelle and Roy,” a pig ridden by a bunny holding an acorn from a pole in front of the pig’s eyes. There’s more.

Because the Arts Center has decided it should not compete with private galleries, it is no longer selling the works in the toy show. However, the Arts Center can put those who want to buy a piece in touch with the artist; call Leslie Schoultz at 372-4000.

Great show. It comes down New Year’s Eve.





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