Retired teacher unleashes artistic passion as a museum guide for kids

  • Updated: December 7, 2013 - 7:45 PM
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Vicki Klaers

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It’s 10 a.m. and time for the walk-through.

In 30 minutes, 14 first-graders from Stillwater’s Wildwood Elementary will thunder off their field-trip bus and pour into the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

For the next hour, they’ll be in the hypnotic realm of Vicki Klaers, retired elementary school teacher and one of the museum’s 125 volunteer Art Adventure guides.

“I have to make sure all the wings are open and the painting are hanging where they’re supposed to be,” she says, stopping in the newly reconfigured African wing.

Klaers checks out an 18th-century Nigerian silver leopard water-pouring figurine and then wanders over to an 1871 oil painting: “On the Thames, a Heron.” Artist James Tissot drew two girls in a boat startling a bird on shore as a refugee from France painting in England.

“Not sure how much we’ll get into the Franco-Prussian War with first-graders,” Klaers says with a chortle.

An hour later, the kids are sitting transfixed in front of the painting. They raise their hands to ask Klaers how big a heron’s wings are and she steers them back to the painting.

“Where do you think the artist was standing? Where he could hear the oars lapping in the water? Where he could hear the heron’s wings?”

Over near the wall, Wildwood teacher Julie Comfort, who refers to the children as “her little pumpkins,” counts her blessings.

“We’re so lucky to have an experienced teacher like Vicki work her magic,” she says. “She’s so calming.”

Klaers grew up in south Minneapolis and Golden Valley, dreaming as a teenager of going into art — perhaps ceramics. Then her loving mother, Lucy, offered a little career guidance.

“Honey, pursue a skill, or you’ll end up in the gutter.”

So after she graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Klaers earned her teaching license and spent 37 years teaching second-, third- and fourth-graders, mostly at Eisenhower Elementary in Coon Rapids. There were some diversions along the way.

She spent 1976 living in East Africa and 1979-80 setting up a school in the Amazon, a two-day boat ride from the nearest airfield. When Lucy visited her daughter in the jungle, she said, “I know you love camping, but isn’t this taking it a little far?”

Klaers retired a few years ago, then “knocked around” for a while, trying to spend as much time as she could in art museums. The Walker was a little too modern for her taste, so she asked about docent training at the Institute. They weren’t looking for new docents, but pointed her to the Art Adventure Guide program. Would-be guides are put through a rigorous art history curriculum and eventually lead kids around the museum’s treasures.

(Sorry, but the museum is not currently looking for any new guides.)

For three years, Klaers has been studying and turning kids on to art. Her mother died Oct. 27 at 89, but not before realizing her daughter had finally followed her artistic passion and was volunteering at the museum.

“I didn’t want to blame her for being a frustrated artist,” Klaers said. “When I told her I was at the Art Institute, she was so proud.”

CURT BROWN

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