Go ‘back to school’ with Ms. Oatman’s art exhibit at La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

Artist Christine Oatman takes the teacher's seat in 'This Thing of Darkness,' where a girl standing on a toppling pile of Dr. Seuss books is erasing some of what's written on the blackboard - William Blake's poem 'The Chimney Sweeper,' with drawings of hardworking children superimposed.
(Photo by Lonnie Burstein Hewitt)


A 1964 graduate of The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Christine Oatman has devoted most of her adult life to art-making and teaching. Her work has been shown locally and nationally, and for 36 years she taught art in city schools and community colleges, often doing collaborative projects with elementary school students. Her current exhibition at La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music & Arts Library — “Stories of Innocence and Experience” — invites visitors of all ages to step into a 1950s-era classroom, and it’s more of a full mind-and-body experience than a regular art show.

This is one class you won’t want to miss, and it’s closing March 7, 2020.

“Stories of Innocence and Experience” is a series of 12 installations that illustrate goings-on inside and outside American classrooms over the past 70 years. In imaginatively detailed settings, Oatman presents life-size, two-dimensional children at old-school desks and blackboards, along with artist-altered children’s books, and neatly written-in-cursive quotations highlighting the differences between what we were taught and what was actually happening in the world.

She covers issues like duck-and-cover drills, integration, the Space Race, the Vietnam War, endangered humans and animal species, the destruction of the Twin Towers and more. Oatman calls the thought-provoking scenes she’s been assembling for more than a decade “pedagogic tableaux.”

I’d call them a mind-blowing visual history of our times.

The exhibit’s title references “Songs of Innocence and Experience” by William Blake, the visionary poet/artist who saw children’s innocence destroyed by child labor and other harsh facts of life in his own industrialized, late-18th-century London.

Oatman, a native San Diegan, has more feeling for what she calls “the general happy-go-lucky optimism of American culture after World War II” than I do. As a native New Yorker, my 1950s remembrances include airraid sirens, wearing a dogtag to school so someone could identify my body if the Russians bombed us and the duck-and-cover routine didn’t work, and seeing the Army-McCarthy hearings on our black-and-white TV when I came home for lunch.

But whatever your personal memories are, Oatman’s visuals — with a soft soundtrack of the ’50s and ’60s in the background — will both delight and disturb you, and the more time you spend with each scene, the more you’ll see, feel and start thinking about.

Consider bringing your kids or grandkids — give them a taste of some history they’ll never learn in school. Just get to the Athenaeum before this school’s out.

Take This Quiz

1. Can you open the blue door to “Stories of Innocence and Experience”? Why or why not?

2. Can you find the Mouseketeer in the mouse cage in “Animal Friends”?

3. If you take away the broken chairs in “Subtraction,” how many remain?

4. Can you find the real money in “The Farm”?

5. Do good fences make good neighbors? Why or why not?

IF YOU GO:Christine Oatman: Stories of Innocence and Experience” is on view through March 7, 2020 at Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. (858) 454-5872.


The Artist’s Way

Christine Oatman always wanted to be an artist, but she had to make a living. “So I taught, taught, taught for 36 years,” she said. “I learned a lot from teaching, but when I retired in 2011, I got a studio and finally had time and space to do my artwork. There’s more social comment in this show than people know, and I financed the whole thing myself — sold my grandmother’s paintings, refinanced my home — because I really wanted to do it.”

She had five devoted assistants — Jenny Yoshida Park, Noé Olivas, Jim Renner, Nelle Martin and especially Anne Reas — who created the life-size child figures Oatman wanted to be “generic-looking and not overly cute.”

Be sure to see Reas’ original pastel renderings in the Athenaeum’s Rotunda Gallery, and take time to contemplate the quotes Oatman used to highlight her “Stories” — like this one, from William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

For more information, visit

'Global Mishap' is one of the 12 life-size installations in 'Stories of Innocence and Experience.' A boy intent on building an oil derrick with his Erector Set - a popular toy in the 1950s - is carelessly knocking over the globe into a school trashcan.
(Photo by Lonnie Burstein Hewitt)