South Whidbey festival champions arts in public education

Frank Rose has a vision. If he has his druthers, one day families will seek out Whidbey Island as the place to live because of its world-class arts programming for students in all island public schools.

Frank Rose has a vision.

If he has his druthers, one day families will seek out Whidbey Island as the place to live because of its world-class arts programming for students in all island public schools.

Rose is the mastermind behind the Whidbey Island Arts Council’s Whidbey Arts in Education Community Consortium.

At the beginning of this school year, the consortium saw the advent of an artist-in-residence program that began with several working artists teaching various programs in South Whidbey schools. The pilot program paid professional artists to teach oil painting, block-relief printmaking and bookbinding, fiber arts and other visual arts in the classrooms of the South Whidbey schools. But the program is just getting started.

Other artists have already been tapped to teach music, theater arts, dance, literary art and more visual art in as many school classrooms as funds will allow. The program is staffed by volunteers including Rose as its chairman and principal fundraiser, Robert Prosch, former South Whidbey High School principal, as its manager and high school art teacher Don Wodjenski as its South Whidbey and Coupeville school districts arts coordinator.

But the program depends on grants and private donations, and although it has a strong partnership with arts organizations, schools and local businesses, its initial boost from the Washington State Arts Commission will likely not repeat due to state funding shortfalls.

That’s the reason, Rose said, that community support is needed now more than ever, so he came up with the Whidbey Festival of the Arts to get the word out.

“The Washington State Arts Commission has been gutted. What we’re trying to do is raise the funds to fill that void,” Rose said.

“That’s what this festival is all about; to fill that void.”

This weekend the Whidbey Arts in Education Community Consortium will join with the South Whidbey Elementary Parents and Teachers Association to create the first of what Rose hopes will be many in a series of Whidbey Festival of the Arts. The festival is two days, from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, June 10 and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 11, and includes music, theater, dance, poetry slams, visual arts, “pay-it-forward bake sales” and a big, tasty affordable barbecue, with dinner and beverages for everyone.

The festival takes place all around the campus of South Whidbey High School.

Betsy Gmerek, artist liaison for SWEPTA and the consortium, has been triple-timing it as an elementary school parent, an art docent coordinator in the elementary school and a consortium coordinator.

“Frank is the real heart of this event,” Gmerek said, “and having had great past arts events with SWEPTA, teaming up with the festival has been great.”

Gmerek said the parent and teachers association usually held its own arts event and barbecue around this time every year, but it seemed silly to do two events when everybody is fighting for the same thing: arts in school.

“We know the state doesn’t have the money to fund the kids who are now coming up in the schools,” Gmerek said.

“But there is no visual arts specialist planned for next year in the elementary school. That’s not right,” she said. “How are these kids supposed to graduate with the credits they need for art if there is no foundation to get there?”

The consortium folks are doing everything in their power to keep arts curriculum vital.

Whidbey Children’s Theater founder and acting teacher Martha Murphy is on the board of the Whidbey Island Arts Council and a consortium committee member.

“Our hope would be to have success with this first festival and then be able to move the artist-in-residence programs up the island to Coupeville,” Murphy said.

Oak Harbor is in the future plans, as well.

Festival goers can browse the work of 20 elementary classrooms worth of art by students, meet the docents and artists-in-residence and enjoy the performances of island students.

The festival is poised to do more than just give folks a good time and an inexpensive dinner. The festival and indeed, the consortium itself, strives to connect artists with students, adults and teachers. It’s all about building a support system of adult artists who, in turn, are supported by the community, Rose said.

“That money goes back into the community,” he added.

But, in the end, for all these folks who are passionate about not just keeping art in the schools, but who wish to see art programs grow through the continuum of professional artists influencing students and teachers, while the artists themselves turn around and support the community where they are working, it’s a win-win situation.

“There’s so much joy when I’m working with the kids. The kids feel great when they are making art,” Gmerek said.

The barbecue meal will be available from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.