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Learning Art the Gag Way

By Michael Gassett

July 31, 2011
Sports Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - Sometime in the 1970s, Tanya Lee went to a book sale at the Martin County Library.

A book there, Sue Sew-and-Sew, caught her eye. It was written and illustrated by Asta, Dehli and Flavia Gag and it fascinated her.

"I loved that little book and the illustrations were so cute," Lee said.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Tanya Lee teaches the Sue Sew-and-Sew class at the Wanda Gag House in New Ulm.

She never thought much about that book over the next several years. Then a few years ago, she took a tour of the Wanda Gag House in New Ulm and saw that book again.

"I noticed there was a Sue Sew-and-Sew book on the upstairs cabinet," Lee said. "Then I remembered, I didn't even know the [Gag] sisters had written it."

Seeing that book again gave her an idea.

Fact Box

Summer Gag Camp Artists:

Deborah Johnson: Minnesota artist specializing in fiber arts. She has taught at the past two Gag Summer Art Camps. She owns and operates Fox Lake Art Studio.

Tanya Lee: Minnesota native presently teaching at the California Institute of Arts as costume designer, pattern maker and serves as Head Draper for the theater department. She has taught at the past two Gag Summer Art Camps.

Jason Jaspersen: art teacher at Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School in New Ulm, local sculptures including Gertie the Goose in Riverside Park and Herbie the Hedge Hog in German Park in New Ulm.

Cheryl Harness: author and illustrator well known for writing and illustrating more than 50 children's history books, specializing in American historical subjects. She has taught at one Summer Gag Art Camp.

Angie Archer: professional photographer She will teach the class as a joint effort with New Ulm Park and Recreation


Marilyn Lieske: Bohemian lace maker. She has many hand crafts that she has taught to children. She is an early childhood education specialist and is a retired elementary teacher and a daily volunteer tutor in the New Ulm Public School System. Marilyn has been a Gag House volunteer for many years and has served on the Board of Directors.

"We should offer a sewing class to kids based on the book," she said. "We could follow the story line with hand sewing, then making patterns for the clothes and then make all of the outfits."

She broached the subject with her sister, Diana Schaefer, who was the Wanda Gag House Association President. Schaefer was sold from the start.

"Tanya loves Wanda's stuff," Schaefer said. "I thought doing a class would be a great idea and then having it at the Wanda Gag House. How perfect would that be? We started out with one class and ended up with six classes that first year."

That first year, they had a class with 16 children. It was so popular that the following year, they split it in to two classes. They had a beginners' class that did just hand sewing in the morning. In the afternoon they offered an advanced sewing and a machine sewing class.

"Diana even brought in two treadle machines and was letting the kids experiment with it and they loved it," Lee said.

The first two years, they used rag dolls that were similar to the dolls that the Gag children would have had. This year they changed things up a bit.

"We are straying a little way from the book and we are using commercial doll patterns for the American Dolls," Lee said.

Making doll clothes is something Lee has been doing since she was a child herself.

"I did a lot of sewing for dolls when I was growing up," she said. "Me and Barbie were friends and that's where it all started. I used to make tons of old doll clothes. I still have them, I should bring them some year and show the kids."

That love for fashion put Lee on the path she is on now. She went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with a major in fashion design. She has worked at the Emmy Gifford Children's Theater in Omaha, the Boston Ballet and Harvard University. She is currently working at the California Institute of the Arts in the costume department where she works on costume construction.

With the success of the Sue Sew-and-Sew program, the Wanda Gag House Association thought more activities should be planned. Members of the association just tried to think of things that the Gag children did and where they could get artists to teach them.

They discovered what kind of activities the Gag children - seven in all - participated in by reading diaries and the books they wrote. Then they built a curriculum based on some of those activities.

"She [Wanda Gag] talks about doing sandpaper art, that would be a really neat thing to do but we haven't found anybody to teach it yet," Schaefer said. "They did watercolors, we haven't offered that yet, but there are people in the community that are watercolor artists."

Some classes that they have offered in the past include; batik, which is similar to tie dye. According to Wikipedia, it is 'wax resist dyeing technique in fabric. Wax is used to prevent the dye from reaching all the cloth, thereby creating a pattern."

It's done on fabric, but it was artwork that they would frame and hang on the wall.

This year some of the classes include ceramic sculpture, acrylic experimental painting, digital photography, story writing and bobbin lace.

"The Gag children were very busy," Schaefer said. "Every night they sat at the dining room table and they did artwork, they drew, they did plays and they would perform for their parents and friends. They wondered why other kids didn't do these things. They were an interesting group."

The Wanda Gag Association has had a lot of local support.

The Frame Gallery is giving participants of the photo class mats for their enlarged picture. Wood and Windows gave sawdust to make the pillows that are used to make Bohemian Lace, sewing machines were donated for use by Annette Perry. The New Ulm area quilters gave so much fabric last year that they had plenty for the Sue Sew-and-Sew class this year.

Randy Danielson lent the use of the Marktplatz Mall Community Room for classes. Hy-Vee allowed each digital photography participants to develop 8x10 pictures.

The City of New Ulm allowed the use of the pottery room and kiln for the sculpture class.

Class sizes are around 12 students, except for the bobbin lace because it's a lot of hands-on experience and they do a lot of work with each student individually.

The classes are paid for in part by grants.

That first year, the Wanda Gag House Association applied and was awarded a Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council Arts and Cultural Heritage Grant to help fund the program. They have continued to receive grants from Prairie Lakes. The grant money has helped offset about half of the cost.

Lee hopes to continue to come back year after year and possibly teach a few other classes too.

"It's fun, I love the kids," she said. "It's interesting that in this day and age they don't know how to sew any more. They don't know how to knot a needle, thread a needle or even use an iron. It's a whole different world. But the kids really seem to enjoy it. There are repeat kids that come back for the classes and they love it."

Some of the artwork that the children do is on display at the Wanda Gag House for people in the community to see.

"It's a unique opportunity for the children to have their artwork on display along side a world-famous artist like Wanda Gag," Schaefer said. "How many people can say that?"



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