Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Community Service and the Art Department

Late August is the time of year that educators start to reflect on how they will make an impact this year. How will it be different for their students? What can I do to make this the best year. A colleague I follow on Twitter, Matt Cauthron (@imagemonki)asked the question, anyone got any good service projects? It made me start thinking about the role of the Art Department in community service. To me community service is a great way to make an impact and make each year the best that students can remember. The arts in particular can take the lead on doing this by actively involving students in connections and service.

As the Visual Art Department Chair and director of Art Club at my school I believe very strongly in my role to connect to the school community and the greater Milwaukee Community. My students live somewhat sheltered lives out in the suburbs and I really want them to experience all that the rich and diverse community of Milwaukee has to offer. I used to be the Community Outreach and Education Director for the Betty Brinn Children's Museum in Milwaukee. The three years I spent there really taught me the importance of connecting in mutually beneficial ways. Community service and outreach should be good not just for the recipients, but also for the people providing the this case me and my students! It should be the proverbial "win-win" situation.

In the past Art Club has connected to the community on many levels. We started out small by doing projects in school. Just as in child development, baby steps requiring focusing on yourself first and then branching out to think of others. So we painted the gallery walls and created an entry-way mural for the school. Both projects were well received and benefited the art students since their work was hanging in the gallery on a regular basis. From there the art club grew from a few members to a strong core of 15-20 students who were very devoted to the idea of hanging out, making art and providing service to the community.

We were now ready to take on the world, or at least our little suburban world. We were asked to work on a project for River Hills Nursing Home to help them create a new room for their Alzheimer's wing. This project provided students with the opportunity to meet residents, see their work hung in a public place and see how profoundly happy a simple painting could make people. We developed a garden-themed mural and also helped with ideas on how to transform the drab room into a garden room. The Nursing Home staff painted the room a soothing sage green and added lattice work, a faux fence and a garden bench along with potted plants. They hosted a reception for my students, their parents and the principal of the school. We met with staff and saw residents as well. It was a very positive experience for all.

We have done other service including a community art making fund raiser called "Tile-A-Mile". This event was started three years ago because there was no scholarship money for Visual Art students at our school. We host an event yearly to raise funds for a scholarship, but it is also an art-making opportunity. Community members buy a tile and paint it for $10.00. At the event they also have the opportunity to get their faces painted, see artists demonstrate their craft (wheel throwing, jazz ensembles and foil embossing have been a few), and also bid on raffle and silent auction items donated by the community. This event is a lot of fun for the students of art club who do all the planning and run the various events. It connected me to their parents and in turn to other community members including local businesses. This positive experience for the sake of art is again another win-win community service idea. The tiles that participants create are framed and displayed throughout the school, with the goal of someday having "a mile of tiles". The community is given an opportunity to be entertained, fed and maybe even win a raffle item, while the students benefit by gaining scholarship funds and the experience of leadership opportunities.

Last year I didn't do as much community service. The Educator community was under attack in the state of Wisconsin where I live. It was hard to focus on anything other than keeping my job and hoping all the scary things being threatened didn't come true. We did manage to do some local service projects including decorations and murals for homecoming and winter ball. We also provided art work for a local business this past summer. Students helped mat the work and get it ready for display. The exhibit was part of a business mixer for local businesses to meet and mingle. The art work was a big hit and the business ended up giving us a donation for our scholarship fund.

This is one of the hidden values of Community Outreach and service. You raise the visibility of your program in the community. Businesses become aware of you and the students you serve. Another type of service is more of a partnership really. I developed a program where my students provided art work to 3 local businesses to display in their new office spaces. The businesses in turn made substantial donations to our scholarship fund. The students whose work was chosen to be displayed received a stipend. One of the businesses came back the next year and offered several of my students jobs at their site in a production/digital photography capacity. This never would have happened if we hadn't made the initial connection.

So this year try a bit of community service. Think beyond your classroom and connect with a local business or group that will benefit your program, your students and the community. So many valuable skills can be learned through service and outreach. Best of luck with back to school 2011!