1999-06-26 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
by Susan Hartenstein

Suns, moons and stars blossoming out from hallway walls inhabited by colorful sea creatures dancing across bright blue and green seas. Dazzling African masks of clay and paper mache. Cheerful faces jumping between squares of imaginative patterns and designs. Bouncing basketballs leaping from doors. Exuberant painted vegetables seemingly thrilled to be where they are. Thanks to some extraordinary children and dedicated RAA adults, this is now the scene at Junior High School 180. Lively murals decorate hallways. Display cases burst with color and magic. A cafeteria once just a drab place to eat, is now a joyous visual feast. What is responsible for this transformation? RAA’s KIDSMART.

What occurred June 13? KIDSMART’s final day showcase and celebration party. Just to remind you, KIDMSMART is an after-school arts program RAA held at JHS 180 for Rockaway’s children, ages 5 to 18. Funding came from RAA’s NYCDYCD arts education grant. More than 350 children attended the 10 week program that ended June 13. Fifteen teen assistants, all from Rockaway, earned a stipend of $7 an hour. In addition to the murals and display cases, also on view this final day, were many of the other artworks done by the students. The beauty, exuberance and creativity inside our children was drawn out of them to be expressed in textile designs, jewelry, mosaics, drawings, photographs and more. The light deep within these children flowed out as crayon rainbows. Butterflies were created so beautiful, it seemed a shame to confine them to the paper on which they were drawn. The significance of this program is that its impact will go far beyond these 10 weeks and this one place. It was the children’s minds and imaginations which took flight, even if the butterflies stayed where they were.

One grandmother attending the showcase told me that before the program, her granddaughter hadn’t the self-confidence to even attempt such work. With the loving encouragement of the RAA instructors, the child came to believe she could do anything. Another parent actually wept saying that, other than KIDSMART, there was nothing like this in Rockaway for her child.

We all know that children learn better when they enjoy and are stimulated by what they are doing. For example, each week of the program, a different artist’s life and work was explored. Geoff Rawling created the most amazing masks of the artists’ faces. African and aboriginal art was presented. To make these lessons come to life, the artwork the children created was done in the styles of the different artists. The murals lining the hallways therefore chart the journeys taken by the minds of the participants. The cognitive skills of the youngsters were thus challenged and trained. They had to translate what they’d learned into concrete application. Children and teen assistants of diverse backgrounds worked together. All were challenged and encouraged to do more, to go beyond what they ever dreamed they could do.

As part of the celebration, youngsters in the theater class put on a performance of a Shakespeare monologue. In acting it out, they came to understand what these daunting words meant. Perhaps they won’t be so intimidated by Shakespeare in the future. A previous performance was actually written by the children themselves.

KIDSMART was the brain child of program director Chris Jorge. She conceptualized it and implemented it. It was born out of her love and respect for the children of Rockaway. In her words, we shouldn’t underestimate the abilities of these children. We must challenge them and give them the proper supportive environment to develop. Ms. Jorge understands how much our community and our schools are capable of doing for our young people. She and program coordinator Marina Callaghan worked tirelessly to make KIDSMART a reality. Creating this nurturing, safe and entertaining environment was a collaborative effort. For the instructors this was much more than a job. Anyone observing the loving, caring relationships between them and the children could see that. The instructors, besides Chris, Marina and the wondrous Geoff Rawling, were Miriam Abraham, Maria Castellano, John Gilleece, Alexus Guzman, Rose Hannon, Kate Judge, Arnold Kessler, Wendy Lehrer, Karen McCallion and Andrew Nielson. Without those wonderful, giving teen assistants this program wouldn’t have been as successful as it was. They were David Bernstein, Peter Brady, Kalin Callaghan, Gaby Cryan, LaToya Davis, Meghan Edwards, Laura Gessler, Charles Gili, Juan Gonzalez, Jack Keenan, Bari Langbaum, Nicole Mendez, Russell Moore, Lynor Murray and Sean Redden. Those glorious children that opened like flowers. Those extraordinary parents and grandparents who brought their children and encouraged them, who were so openly appreciative of RAA’s commitment, and whose eyes were frequently opened to just how much their children were capable of doing. Thanks to Principal Robert Spata for his support. Kudos to the great custodial staff. All were winners and heroes in this program.

Art can open up the world in so many ways for a child. Self-esteem, a creative outlet for emotions and ideas, learning about cooperation with those different from oneself, the training of cognitive processes. Anyone in the arts knows this. But as I have said before, the benefits of the arts should not be for just a chosen few. They must be made available to everyone

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