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BHS teacher's art is one for the book

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What do you get when you combine animals, alliteration and art? If that sounds like the makings of a good children’s book, you’d be right on track for “If Picasso Went to the Zoo.”

The book, written by Eric Gibbons, features the work of 50 art teachers, including Bakersfield High School ceramics instructor Yvonne Cavanagh. The author’s last book, “If Picasso Had a Christmas Tree,” employed a similar design with work from 30 art teachers.

Cavanagh said she was approached for the project through a Facebook art teachers group of more than 7,000 members in which she is active.

“This is the first time I have done something like this and it is very exciting,” she wrote in an email.

From Renaissance works to Pop art, the teachers each interpreted how a different artist would have represented a zoo animal. Each creature was matched alliteratively with the artist’s name, e.g. a pangolin for Picasso and a dodo for Dali. (What better animal than an extinct bird for the surreal painter?)

For her selection, Cavanagh chose Robert Arneson, a fellow ceramic artist known for the large Eggheads at UC Davis, where he taught for nearly three decades.

“His work can be fun and silly but has a strength to it and I thought it would be interesting to emulate his style in an animal.”

Based on a suggestion from Gibbons, Cavanagh chose an aye-aye, a primate native to Madagascar, to sculpt. The animal’s big ears and expressive face were a good match for Arneson’s style, Cavanagh said.

“Arneson has many self-portraits and he sometimes has his tongue sticking out, so I knew I would include that element.

“Also, in an Arneson piece, he paints his giant ear red and has his head tilted so I brought those elements into my sculpture of the aye-aye.”

The sculpted aye-aye head took about two months to complete, from submitting sketches to sculpting, firing, glazing and the final firing.

“It was good for me to get out of my comfort zone and create something I never would have done.”

The supportive BHS team helped Cavanagh along the way, from the encouragement of her students to photography teacher Lisa Rudnick who shot the photo used in the book.

“I was able to start out the school year sharing the finished book with my second-year students after they saw me creating the sculpture last year.”

Cavanagh said she admires the work of the book’s other artists, including Elizabeth Osborne, who created a collage of a bald eagle in the style of American artist and writer Romare Bearden.

“I think the way she incorporated the images of the hands is fantastic,” Cavanagh said of the work that features hands in the bird’s plumage and feet.

With each piece of art paired with a rhyming verse about the honored artist and his or her work, the book provides an overview of various art movements suitable for children and adults. Each of the book’s illustrations has a tiny leaf nearby to help readers understand if the animal is endangered, extinct, or thriving. A free downloadable extended learning packet explores themes of zoology, poetry, research, history and more.

“It is the perfect gift for an artist, art lover or teacher,” Cavanagh said.

The Bakersfield Museum of Art will host a signing with the local artist from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 3. She will bring her sculpture from home to display at the event. “If Picasso Went to the Zoo” is available at and and will be sold at the Oct. 3 event, while supplies last.

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