Israel in the Gardens | Child’s play becomes creative mitzvah for Art Kids

Three blond sisters sat on the floor of their Mountain View living room surrounded by potholder loops, which they finger-knit into jump ropes and many-colored creations. They also design colorful pendant necklaces, using snippets of paper and fired glass. On the dining room table, they’ve display-ed their newest creative venture: pedestal party plates fashioned from vintage or recycled dishes, cups or glassware.

The Mahlmeister sisters — Lucy, 11; Drew, 10; and Zoe, 6 — call themselves the Art Kids. They create “art with a purpose,” donating 50 percent of their receipts to charitable organizations. Since October, they’ve raised more than $1,500 for charity, participating at craft fairs at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where they are members, and at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

Lucy (from left), Zoe and Drew Mahlmeister

But their biggest gig by far is on June 2, at Israel in the Gardens.

Sandra Mahlmeister was beyond surprised when she received a call inviting her daughters to participate. “We’ve never done something on this scale before,” she said.

That call came from Lital Cohen, coordinator of Israel in the Gardens, who had heard about the girls’ work from another artist, checked out their website and was smitten.

“They’re extremely talented and nice and I really love their artwork,” said Cohen. Speaking to the girls on the phone, she was surprised that “they’re so professional … even though they’re so young.” She also found out that donating part of the proceeds to the Jewish community “is something that’s very important to them.”

At first, the girls sold primarily by word of mouth. The “business” began to roll in midair, during the winter of 2009, when the family was traveling to Colorado and they had a captive audience. Relating the story, the girls complete each other’s sentences.

“We started with necklaces,” said Lucy.

“We were on an airplane,” said Zoe, “and we were finger-knitting.”

 When the flight attendants and fellow travelers asked what the girls were doing, they couldn’t help noticing their pretty pendants.

Pedestal party plate

“Mommy was [also] wearing a necklace that we made and we were asked if we sold them,” Drew recalled. “Yes,” she responded. “We make them and we sell them and we give half the money to charity.”

Impressed by the girls’ enterprise, three flight attendants asked if they could try on the necklaces.

“And we sold them on the plane,” Zoe added. Even on an airplane, where the girls sold about a dozen, the pendants were an easy sell at $13 and $16, depending on size.

The plates, most at $11 to $35, come in a variety of sizes and styles, including tiered party plates. “Our idea was not to overprice,” said Sandra.

Most of the pendants feature designs from specialty papers; others include the girls’ sketches. Pendants, which come with an adjustable silver ball chain, are packaged in a golden organza bag with the Art Kids card.

The girls, Sandra emphasized, do the work. “John [their dad] and I are just behind-the-scenes helpers.”

However, much gets done behind the scenes. Using a logo designed by Lucy, John Mahlmeister, an electrical engineer and entrepreneur, helped create the website, www.theartkids.com. Sandra, a former hospital administrator and now a professional photographer, supplied the photos. She introduced the girls to making art as soon as they could use their hands.

Paper and fired-glass pendant

“They do art all the time. They love creating,” she said.

Whether they’re creating or giving, there are no idle hands in the Mahlmeister home, where on a Friday afternoon, loaves of chocolate-chip challah were baking in the oven while soup simmered in a slow-cooker. Art, community service and charitable giving have always been part of the picture.

The girls have helped in a soup kitchen and aided the homeless through Beth Am, where Lucy and Drew attend religious school. Lucy and Drew have donated their hair to cancer patients through Locks of Love, and as they approach bat mitzvah age, they are evaluating new mitzvah projects.

The Art Kids have already contributed to such organizations as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Second Harvest Food Bank, Autism Speaks, Oak Avenue Elementary School (which they attend), the Poltava Fund (for Beth Am’s sister congregation in Ukraine) and Beth Jacob Preschool.

Committed to giving back, the girls want to inspire others to get involved — either by donating their time to community organizations, helping to turn unused items into art or creating their own “art with a purpose.”

While the girls get to bank a percentage of the proceeds, their parents have no expectations of retiring on the Art Kids’ talents.

Said John: “My retirement will be them setting forth on a good path.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a retired former senior editor at J. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.