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Flying under the radar

When you want to get something done, is it better to just keep your head down and go a little underground, or is it better to make some noise and get all that attention and potential support?

Danged if I know.

One of my jobs is as an Artist In Residence, teaching fifth graders at one school about how to make clay tiles for an installation in their school. The other one is as Assistant Coordinator for a district-wide art program called Art Heritage.

Art Heritage has been in existence for 33 years in the Grand Valley. We teach 150 or so volunteers (parents, grandparents, passionate community members) to bring art instruction units into 23 schools, to over 9000 elementary students. We train them and give them resources they can use to teach about the artist, their genre and their historical context, as well as to present an art project for the students to do, inspired by that artist.

But often even parents whose kids have received the benefit of the Art Heritage Program, really have no clue what we do, especially if they have never volunteered for us.  Then there are people who politely ask what exactly do you do again? It's something like art? Do you teach kids? I work at saying it all in just a few words, so I don't see their eyes dart away, already not really listening. It's okay, I don't really listen when my computer guy tells me what he did so my laptop will run again. It's my job to make the projects and supplies accessible not only to the volunteers, but to the students they will teach.

At times, it's a little like that old game of "telephone." I say something in the training class, our volunteers hear that and take it back to the classroom, where sometimes it comes out, well, a little wonky. So part of my job is to be very clear, without insulting anyone's intelligence, when I present a project. Give them specific directions but give them leeway to use their own ideas. Spark an inspiration that will fire up in the classroom. Check out these Picasso faces--all different, all completely individual, and all totally valid answers to the challenge.

Art Heritage's original format was lengthy, very wordy, and used slides (you remember slides?) to show students the work of great artists.  My predecessors worked out of their homes, storing supplies in a tiny closet and handing out mimeographed sheets to the volunteers. Over the years the program has developed into something quite a bit larger and more technologically adept. We now use Powerpoints and videos embedded in our website.  We inhabit an office and about 250 square feet of warehouse space, plus our "Shed of Wonders" that houses a seemingly endless supply of paper (we are very good at scrounging donations from printshops.)

I have been the Assistant Coordinator for eight years, and my supervisor has been the Coordinator for nearly 20. In that time, we have grown my job from simply putting the necessary supplies in boxes to send out to schools and speaking for a few minutes at Training about the art project, to a "real" job. At first I was a contract worker. Now I am paid a reasonable wage as a Paraprofessional, sometimes known as an Artist in Residence. Which sounds like I live in a warehouse, with boxes of oil pastels, colored pencils, markers and glue surrounding me.

What I really do is spend a lot of time researching artists and resources to develop a project around those artists. Here's my Audubon project,

I'm having WAAAY too much fun here

some credit to Pinterest, but mostly down to getting my hands painty and grubby, trying to think like a 7-year-old.

Some days I feel like I'm being paid for something I love to do anyway, and other days, I know I'm seriously underpaid. The days with paint and paper and oil pastels, I think maybe I'm having too much fun. The days I move several hundred pounds of paper, markers, paint bottles and glue, I think I'm either underpaid or overage.

We see about 150 volunteers, six times a year, for an all-morning training meeting in which we present all our labors of love, the units of study on significant and important artists. We present them with a fully-developed art project that honors that artist's vision. Each volunteer needs to bring only a heart for putting more art in a child's day, an understanding and passion for how important that is to each child's development, and a willingness to try. We provide all the information, the support, the supplies, and the permission to experiment and think like a child again.

One of my behind-the-scenes jobs is to procure, inventory, maintain and distribute all the supplies we need for those lessons. We train those volunteers, but they bring the lesson to about 9000 students. Six times a year. Do the math. Many, many reams of paper, lots of pints of paint, big class sets of oil pastels...it is a physical job, shifting all that into and out of each school's supply box.

We almost never see administrators in our corner of one of many school support buildings, where we plan and organize and brainstorm and bang out biographies and art projects around Dale Chihuly or Mary Cassatt. I see them even less than my supervisor does. She is half-time,  I am barely 30 hours a month. I keep my head down most of the time, though. My job is not to shmooze with admin, but to figure out how much paint we'll need for thousands of kids to paint birds like Audubon did. I like it that way.

Sometimes I really want all our administrators to come to Training and see what we do. To watch these amazing volunteers talk about students who mob them in the hallway when they know the Art Heritage cart is coming to their room. I want them to hear about the kids who cannot sit still during spelling but who remember making wire sculptures like Calder, and can tell you all about Picasso and cubism. I want them to sit with my volunteers while they study with us about who Georgia O'Keeffe was and what she has to say to them today.

But sometimes I think it would be better if they just trust us to do our job. Maybe I don't really want them to lay any claim to this success, to what we have built and continue to build on. Maybe I would let them come, let them learn, but then shoo them on back to their offices to let us get on with what we do best.



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