Amber Marks-Thornton has been attending classes at the Studio School since she was 5 years old (it was called the Art Academy then). She's now 16. Meadow Cooskey's parents drive her all the way from Petrolia every Saturday during class sessions to attend the program's art classes on the HSU campus. Parents of students report to Lisa Hale, the program coordinator since this past July, that their kids look forward to the Saturday classes all week and don't want to leave when they're over. What's all the fuss about?
"It's fun," said Meadow, in the succinct way of the young. At her age (10), she's not concerned with developing her creative potential or how her artistic skills will benefit her in her adult life - she just knows she likes drawing, painting, working with other students to create a collaborative novel (about an iPod fished from a bottomless hole). Parents like Meadow's father, Peter, are concerned about the lack of art education in schools and are doing what they can to fill this gap. "Art is an important part of growing up," he told me. "It's also good for her to be around the university." So they make the 120-mile round trip every week.
I asked Amber what kept her going year after year. "If I didn't have it, I wouldn't do art," she told me. The classes, "fuel me to do new creations." She talked about the variety of techniques she's learned and the friends she's made in the classes. The Studio School has helped build her confidence, both in art and in general. Amber's father Tim chose the art program for her when she was five because she "started showing signs of needing to do art at 2!" He feels that it's every parent's job to focus on their children's strengths, "to make them viable as tools for life." He and Amber's mother Kathy both talked about the importance of art for building communication skills. "Art is a great expression for any young person to have available to them as an outlet for feelings and thoughts," Kathy said.
The Studio School began as the Art Academy in 1992 and was founded by HSU art professor Sanderson Morgan (now semi-retired). Joanne Berke, who has been involved with the program since its inception, told me that at the time, there was very little available in the community in the way of art enrichment programs, and the visual arts in the public schools were being cut. Starved for the arts in their schools, students who found the Art Academy seem to have clung to it for life and went through withdrawal symptoms when the Academy closed for a year to go through some changes and reemerge as the Studio School this past year.
The changes don't affect students that much - the content is pretty much the same. The spring and fall sessions still consist of nine Saturday classes of five different levels (summer sessions consist of a two-week program).
There is a common theme for each session - the theme for the upcoming Spring 2007 session is Community Based Art Making. That was Mimi Dojka's idea. "I wanted the students to engage with the community more," she told me. It's a pretty broad topic, and the class projects involve things like using art to teach children how to care for their teeth, using mosaic on a public recycling bin, creating a poster for the spring Studio School art show, examining neighborhoods through photography and building a photo-collage sculpture.
The biggest change to the program is in its teaching staff. Mimi Dojka is a lecturer and Joanne Berke a professor in the art education department at HSU. They had the idea to make the program a learning lab for art education students. In the fall, the art education majors are partnered with credentialed art educators. They help teach the classes and are in training for the spring session, when they will take over and teach the classes themselves under supervision. The arrangement allows the Studio School to reduce its staff and still provide an excellent 12-to-1 teacher/student ratio while providing hands-on experience for the Art Education students.
There's only one sour note to all this, and that is the limited number of children the program can serve. I'm not going to dwell on that here, except to say that talking with everyone involved with the school reinforces my belief that this is something every kid needs, or at least the opportunity to try. Public schools should be able to provide unique experiences like this to all children, even those who couldn't otherwise afford it, but they don't. I encourage all parents to go to their school board meetings when budgets are being discussed and demand high quality art education for their children. In the meantime, the Studio School does offer some scholarships and they'd happily take contributions from the community to offer more.
The Studio School serves children ages 5-17, with students divided by age groups into five levels. Starting in February, they will offer a new class for children ages 2-4 and their parents, which sounds very interesting. The tots will be learning new drawing and crafting skills, and the parents will be able to talk with art educators about the skills that their children are learning. It's designed to "help parents foster the creative development of their children," Lisa explains.
There will be an open house on Jan. 20 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Room 24 of the HSU Art Department. Spring session starts Jan. 27 and runs through March 24. Early registration is recommended - if you want to jump on it before the Open House, contact Program Coordinator Lisa Hale at 826-3819, e-mail her at email@example.com or download registration materials at www.humboldt.edu/studioschool.