By Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky, Arts Editor

I Love Surprises!

Know what my favorite part of this season is? I love the surprises!

Who can look at a wrapped holiday gift and not wonder what’s inside? Confess it: there’s not one of us who hasn’t shaken a package trying to guess what it held before opening it. How many children have tried to stay awake late enough to see what surprises Santa had in store for them.  And doesn’t it just spoil the fun of a gift when someone knows ahead of time what he or she will receive? The fun of a gift-giving, and gift-receiving, is the surprise of the gift.

Even the season itself offers natural surprises. December can bring bitterly cold temperatures or ice and snow—-or not. One just never knows. It’s a surprise. My column has a few surprises for you this month, too.

For starters, I was recently invited to preview an exhibition at the St. Louis Science Center. You won’t often see the Science Center mentioned here in my column because, well, this is an ART column. “Science” and “art” aren’t usually used in the same sentence. Oh, there was that connection back when Leonardo (DaVinci, that is,) was dabbling in art but you have to admit that the link between science and art is frail at best. The fact that the title of this show was “Star Trek: The Exhibition” didn’t help either. You see, both my doctor and my husband were intrigued by a Star Trek episode while I was giving birth to my son, so you might understand why Star Trek isn’t a favorite with me. And what’s with those pointy ears anyway? Clearly, I was a reluctant visitor at the preview.

I was greeted by Mark Smith, the president of Exhibition Dynamix, while painters put the finishing touches on the exhibition space. “Take a look at these conceptual drawings,” Mark guided me, perhaps reading my thoughts. “You can follow through the way the artist took an idea and created every detail about the character, how the drawings evolved through the process.” Did he say drawings? Okay, I was interested. “And these are the sculptures of various creatures on the shows through the years.” Sculptures? Yes, he was right that they were fascinating—some were a bit creepy, but definitely interesting. “Did you see the costumes? The fabrics selected vary and were chosen for their texture, sheen and color.” And yes, I must admit that only creative minds could come up with all that—-and art is a creative process. Hmmm, maybe so is science. “The ability to think beyond the obvious,” did he say?

Suffice it to say that Star Trek: The Exhibition does hold some surprises, whether or not you wear pointed ears (of course, at this time of year, maybe that was an elf). Take the family for a beam-me-up holiday afternoon. The exhibition continues through May 2012, with various special appearances scheduled. For info, visit www.boldlygoexplore.org.

At the opposite end of the timeline is the Lafayette Square House Tour. Each holiday season this delightful Victorian-era area of our city opens its doors to visitors. And behind the doors of nine residences and two churches are the most charming holiday surprises you’ll find anywhere.

“We are thrilled to bring this year’s Lafayette Square Holiday Parlor Tour back to St. Louis and its visitors,” said Jennifer Weston, president of Lafayette Square Restoration Committee and chairperson of the Holiday Parlor Tour. “We hope those who tour will appreciate the remarkable architecture and feel a sense of hospitality that is uniquely St. Louis. Lafayette Square residents love their neighborhood and the city of St. Louis, and we are proud to show others the uniqueness of the urban lifestyle. Each home will feature its dining room set for traditional holiday entertaining and their lavishly decorated parlors ready to receive visitors. The Lafayette Park United Methodist Church will have its sanctuary open for viewing, while the Church of Scientology will have their newly renovated auditorium open to the public for the first time.”

Carolers will stroll through the Square during the tour. A free trolley will be available for transportation to each of the tour destinations. Complimentary horse-drawn carriage rides will also be available and area restaurants will offer specials. The tour begins in the “Park House”, located inside the southeast corner of Lafayette Park at the corner of Lafayette and Mississippi Avenues. Advance tickets are $15 (call 314-772-5762 or visit www.lafayettesquare.org). or $20 on the day of the tour.

Last year, I was very surprised when I received a phone call from Governor Nixon’s office asking me to design the ornaments for Missouri’s tree at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C. I was even more surprised when the same phone call came a few months ago. Maybe shocked is a more accurate word.

For the second time, I have the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of designing the ornament to represent our state in the nation’s capital. And, for the second time, I am an invited guest at the event when President Obama and his family light the tree on December 1 to kick off the holiday season. (Oh, wow!!!) The event is nationally televised.

Assisting me in producing multiples of my original design were the students at East Middle School in Joplin, Missouri. You may remember hearing about this school when a tornado swept it away—literally, the structure is gone. It’s been an emotional experience to work with these kids who have been through so much loss after the tornado hit this past summer. They’ve gotten used to classes held in a vacant warehouse on the edge of town. What surprised me most about them was their enthusiasm. They worked creatively, maybe a bit messy at times, and they surprised themselves as their hands created wonderful ornaments,  knowing that their artwork would be enjoyed by tens of thousands of people who view the outdoor exhibition this holiday season. They found joy in their artwork and wanted to share it. They certainly shared it with me.

I hope that you, too, find some joyful surprises during this holiday season, regardless of whatever holiday you celebrate. And may a few of those surprises be ARTful!