With every joyful step in her bright purple boots, the tiny Timber Skeen soared in her eagerness to take part in a very special event at the Prescott School District earlier this month.
Like his classmates, the preschooler wore a brown T-shirt, his group being just one of many, dressed in all the colors of the rainbow.
For good reason, it turned out.
On this sunny spring afternoon, Timber and about 250 other students from the Prescott public school system were gathering for something no one remembers having happened here before – an immersive, school-wide art experience that used multiple areas of the school campus as a living canvas.
“Take a partner,” Superin-
handout Justin Bradford gave instructions through a megaphone and — like ocean waves — excited students dressed in matching shirts of teal, orange, cream and more rushed to their first stations.
“The point is to be here, to be present in this experience, to be part of it,” Bradford said as he continued, encouraging students to explore the classrooms where the digital representation of waterfalls cascaded down the walls. walls as the sound of constant rain turned the entire room into an audio rainforest.
High school students were paired with preschoolers, with many older ones squeezing their pupils’ tiny, curious fingers and helping them move from one area of the exhibit to another.
For nearly an hour, “When the River Becomes a Cloud” took each student through choreographed movements that mimicked the Earth’s water cycle.
From white balls gathered on the soccer field – molecules of moisture – to a sports hall filled with huge plastic bagged glaciers, to blue waterfalls and a cloud the size of a pitch , the Prescott children were engaged in performance art that was so much more than pretty colors, technical effects, and frozen Otter Pops at the end.
Truly, while the immersive June 9 event looked like the culmination of a huge project, it was actually the start of something that can’t be easily labeled, Bradford said.
When he arrived as superintendent in 2020, having served as director of special education for College Place Public Schools, Bradford found himself facing a reality for many small rural districts, especially those that are as far apart geographically as Prescott.
“There are no extras…one of the things we didn’t have was, really, formal art instruction,” he said.
There was art in the classrooms, but more often than not it took the form of a class-wide craft activity or assignment. There was little organic, folk art, he said.
Bradford began researching how that might change.
The principal understood his teaching staff, who told him that they wanted to go beyond arts and crafts kits. They wanted video tutorials to guide them in conducting their classes through education and art projects.
And it turned out that several of Prescott’s educators had backgrounds and interests in teaching art in one way or another. They were looking for ways to share those skills.
Enter the Carnegie Picture Lab.
Art for all
The Canegie Picture Lab, a non-profit organization based in Walla Walla, founded its rural art initiative this year. Funded by a grant from the Sherwood Trust, its mission is to bring art to rural schools.
Carnegie program director Kristie Coleman said the effort is in its pilot phase in Prescott, largely due to Bradford’s enthusiasm for making her district the landing site.
“Justin was 100% ‘Yeah, I’m on board, let’s test it here,'” Coleman recalled with a laugh.
The objective of the initiative is to introduce art to primary school students. Even when a school district offers art classes, it’s increasingly rare that such instruction is offered to young children, Coleman said.
Yet it is involvement in art that is associated with progress in important cognitive functions that boost skills, such as math, reading, critical thinking and speaking, say Coleman and other experts.
Studies show that creating art improves hand-eye coordination, promotes creativity, lengthens attention spans, encourages children to try new approaches, and stimulates self-expression.
Teamwork skills are also learned through collaborative efforts, and this is certainly what artists Tia Kramer and Amanda Evans have witnessed in their work in Prescott.
Kramer and Evans arrived with the Carnegie Picture Lab grant to the rural district.
Prescott is 23 miles from Walla Walla. The town of about 300 inhabitants is surrounded by a world of wheat fields and orchards.
More than 80% of Prescott’s students live half an hour away, Bradford said, in the farming community of Vista Hermosa. The town proper consists primarily of grain elevators, a church, a public library, and the Tuxedo Bar and Grill. Plus a well maintained public pool and park.
Evans and Kramer have spent the past six months working with students and staff through different artistic mediums. Both hold master’s degrees from Portland State University and have experience helping others access and develop the art.
Evans, for example, lived and worked as an artist-in-residence at an affordable housing estate in Portland. Together with neighbors, she created an art collective and an art school in the housing complex. She also created an art museum inside an elementary school, with the aim of bringing fine art to students instead of taking students to exhibitions.
Kramer’s work provided him with expertise in connecting art and humans in unexpected ways.
In one instance, she created a rideable art experience with the collaboration of 87 other people along a postal route that Phil, the Kramer neighborhood postman, discovered while delivering mail to each address.
“My specialty is how to move people through space in an immersive experience,” she said.
Together, their upbringing and similar individual experiences place both artists in a unique position to be in Prescott on behalf of Carnegie Picture Lab’s first rural arts project.
They were rewarded with the enthusiasm of teachers and children, Kramer said.
“There was a lot of openness and understanding that we were artists in residence and not art teachers. They were open to learning what that means,” she said.
Art everywhere, everything
On the one hand, this meant introducing the concept of finding art everywhere and in everything. Like cracks in the concrete of a playground – these opened the door to the introduction of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, the practice of mending broken objects with precious metals into something new. beautiful.
While man-made cracks in the school’s playground were “fixed” with colored glue, not gold or silver, the project sent a message to children that art can heal and make the breakup whole and attractive, Bradford said.
Kramer said part of their time in the district involves bringing students from Portland State’s graduate program to the Prescott campus.
“Some of the students were from New York, some from Portland… The Prescott students were thrilled. They were so excited to befriend someone who, for example, does performance art in Times Square,” she said.
The community and its educators often express a sense of being forgotten by the rest of the world, Kramer said; having the art world come to them helped dissipate some of that.
It was immediately clear to Evans and Kramer that while the students hadn’t had an art program in eight years, teachers in the district had become adept at finding ways to incorporate multiple components of the study into their educational practices.
The artists in residence leaned heavily on this discovery to turn it into collaborative efforts, such as using a class of middle schoolers and their teacher, Jennifer Hammer, to transform the school gymnasium into a glacier field.
There, huge strips of plastic were glued in massive puffs 15 feet high and 25 feet wide, supported by fans inside the space. On the walls, thanks to digital technology, cloud formations crossed pink skies to the sound of the pulsations of the “Music for 18 musicians” by composer Steve Reich.
As class unfolded, students here and there momentarily froze in place, slowly turning their heads to absorb the music as well as the images. Teachers, some showing off the effects of the sustained adrenaline rush for an entire class, paused to absorb the view, seemingly taking a few seconds’ respite in the man-made nature.
Finally, the stream of students converged outward to become a cloud of color. Parents and others watched on the sidelines, transfixed as the children formed a moving work of art into a single unit.
At that time, in the river of humans flooding the sports field, the only difference between them all was the color of the shirt fabric.
This end was not an end at all, Bradford repeated, but part of a beginning.
At the end of the period covered by the Carnegie Fellowship, another scholarship of $27,000 found by Evans will extend the artists’ stay in Prescott.
“They’ll be spending all of next year with us,” Bradford said.
Kramer said it gave him and Evans the opportunity to continue working with the district, drawing on various branches of knowledge to develop greater awareness of the art, teach more rules of design, collaborate and experiment.
A planned mural for the district barn next year will mark a relaunch of Prescott’s now-fallow agricultural program, another example of art becoming part of life, Bradford said.
“I know art brings a lot of joy to our children…Our students are much more hands-on learners, more so than any other district I’ve worked in. To do something, to build something, is them at all levels. Art is part of it,” he said.