Support is needed if art is to remain in Whidbey Island schools

Ashley Ricketts and Karyna Hezel tunes into the ancient art of pysanka

A community that makes art together within its schools, sees children thrive and grow to make that community even richer.

That’s the impetus behind the Whidbey Island Arts Council and the South Whidbey Elementary PTA’s (SWEPTA) Whidbey Festival of Arts.

It’s the second annual for the festival and will take place from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, June 1 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 2 at South Whidbey High School on Maxwelton Road in Langley.

Visitors can enjoy free live music and entertainment, food and the festival’s main highlight, professional and student performance, arts and crafts.

This true-blue community partnership will benefit the school art programs, which have been slashed in recent years due to budget cuts.

Frank Rose manages the artists-in-residence program for the Whidbey Island Arts Council’s Arts in Education Community Consortium (WAECC). Betsy Gmerek is the force behind the elementary school’s SWEPTA art docents who have been steadily working with students and teachers in the classrooms for several years.

“The schools have no money from the state, they’ve got declining enrollment so they need community support,” Rose said.

“So it’s incumbent upon the schools to support any community organizations that have an interest in supporting the schools. This WAECC program is the start of that. But it’s still in it’s infancy,” he said.

Together, with the help of artist coordinator Don Wodjenski, Rose and Gmerek have been trying to carve out a niche in the schools to keep art integrated into the curriculum. Not an easy feat considering the teachers have only so much time and are required to keep up with core standards. But, with the combined help of the SWEPTA, the arts council and an impressive list of consortium and business partners, consultants and donors who support these efforts, Rose and Gmerek are optimistic and determined to move forward with more artists-in-residence, provided they can find the $40,000 to keep the programs running.

“Val Twomey was the first teacher who came forward to do the council’s artist-in-residence program,” Rose said.

They situated painter Gordon Edberg in her 2-3 grade class and Twomey took the opportunity to combine the artist’s lessons with the state science standards.

“Both art and science require very careful observation and recording of those observations,” Twomey said.

“When children are drawing and painting the plants and animals, they learn to see the different parts of a plant or animal. We discuss how each of those parts helps the organism to survive. Then we think about how all the plants and animals are part of a larger system, an ecosystem.  Art and science are a powerful combination for in-depth learning,” she added.

Edberg said that he has received a number of emails from parents of the students who reported a new enthusiasm for painting, which some students continue to do at home. Edberg was planning end of the school year field trips to the Langley Marina, the MUSEO gallery and a botany tour at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens where they could also do some paintings.

“By sharing his artist’s sketchbooks and those of other artists, and by helping students to create their own sketchbook, Gordy has shown the students that drawing and painting are ways that we can record our observations and experiences throughout our lives,” Twomey said.

Rose hopes that the example set by Twomey might induce other teachers at the school to follow her lead. The coordinators have already lined up a long list of local professional artists who would be willing to make proposals to teachers about integrating art into the classroom, including theater artists, musicians and more visual artists. But the program needs two things to survive, financial support and the support of the schools.

Kay Parsons is an island visual artist who volunteers for the Whidbey Island Arts Council. She sees the program as something the community can’t afford to ignore.

“Children need to think critically and creative thinking leads to critical thinking,” Parsons said.

“If we don’t furnish these programs for our children, we’re basically cutting them off from having a full, rich life.”

Indeed, the work Gmerek and other volunteer art docents have been doing in the elementary school classrooms has made a noticeable impact on the students. Recently she said the fourth and fifth grade students were busy finishing up projects for the upcoming festival, including painting Pacific Northwest native masks and printmaking.

Gmerek said she  substitutes often and some students who normally push back against working, were, on this day, thinking, reflecting and creating.

“They printed their image as many times as they could in different color combos,” Gmerek said in awe of the transformation.

Gmerek has also been impressed by the enthusiasm with which the second and third graders have engaged with artist Yvonne Palka’s lessons in sumi-e book illustration and writing. Palka is the author and illustrator of “Dragon Fire Ocean Mist” a novel, and a new guide to illustration in the ancient Chinese  painting style titled, “Super Simple Sumi-e.” She has been a popular art docent with the children.

“Palka’s themes of dragons and the marine life of the Washington coast have been a big hit and then the simple, yet specific steps of sumi-e and the energy that surrounds the process is very freeing,” Gmerek said.

One student whom she noticed was usually not interested painted independently and was engaged for an entire hour and a half producing a piece of art for which he was visibly proud.

“This is in one day, and all I need to sleep well,” Gmerek said.

It’s not just the fine arts programs that are threatened to go away forever. Recently, the word on the street was that the South Whidbey High School Choir might see the chopping block, as well. Rose said that basically all that is needed is a strong community partnership that is supported by the schools so that the art programs can withstand any budgetary storms.

“The arts programs have to be embedded into the structure of the curriculum so they don’t go anywhere,” Rose said.

“The Whidbey Festival of the Arts is a way to make the community aware that all these people are working out here for a common cause. Our goal is to support the kids in our schools,” he said.

Performers at the festival will include the South Whidbey Middle and High School Jazz Bands, a South Whidbey student rock band, Four the Birds, jazz singer Nancy Nolan, saxophonist Danny Ward, the Shifty Sailors, Trio Nouveau, Bahia, the Western Heroes, Island Strings and the Rubatano Center marimba bands.

Food and beverages will be offered by Tres Gringo’s, Whidbey Rice and Eagles Aerie 3418, Whidbey Coffee and Mukilteo Coffee.

For a list of all the consortium partners, consultants, donors and business partners, or to get involved in the Arts in Education Community Consortium, visit www.islandartscouncil.org.