2002-07-27 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

By Susan Hartenstein
Rockaway Artists Alliance

From the moment one enters RAA’s Camp kidsmART one is aware of being in a very special place. Clearly, this is a bright, happy environment that fosters creativity, self-confidence, self-discipline, respect and fun. One enters Building T-149 in Fort Tilden and is greeted by a collection of photographs, mounted on oaktag, of shining, laughing faces of children and adults proudly displaying their artwork or hugging or ecstatically frolicking in the "cool," "clean," "fun" of "Water Wednesday" (splashing each other with hoses and buckets of water in the middle of a summer week.) The walls are covered by the paintings, drawings, collages, murals, etc., of the campers. On the same board which displays the Camp kidsmART principles (Kind, Imaginative, Dependable, Sharing, Motivated, Accepting, Respectful, Tolerant) is the Dress Code: "You must wear a smile everyday." Also posted is the camp social code, which emphasizes mutual respect and good conduct.

Everywhere is visual and mental stimulation. Hanging among the artworks are such things as magazine pictures of luscious landscapes and seascapes and black and white images of the greats of jazz. The large, sunny, window-lined room is filled with the tools of creativity, housed in orderly fashion in labeled bins and shelves. No trouble finding exactly what you need, here. Pencils, crayons, paper of all colors, paints, glue and on and on. And lots of things you might not think of as art tools, unless you are being encouraged to stretch your imaginative skills – buttons, strings, Popsicle sticks and more. "Art by the bushel" is how Program Coordinator Miriam Rankin refers to it. On an easel is a Van Gogh print, which asks questions meant to expand knowledge and thinking skills. Written at the easel are, "Who painted this?," "What is the name of this painting?," "What colors do you see?," "Are they warm or cool colors?" Much of this information can actually be found on the borders as part of the print itself. When this is pointed out to Rankin, she responds that these questions are not meant to trick the young campers, but to increase their powers of observation and information gathering.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this art-based summer camp is that while individual creative freedom is fostered, at its core is a highly organized and disciplined structure, which makes all this creativity possible. This structure and caring has been established at the administrative top and carries all the way down through each child. It is amazing how much fun can be had while serious principles and standards of mutual respect and self-discipline are instilled. Such lessons are taught by example. The result is a safe, loving environment that expands knowledge and artistic, social and cognitive skills. If one person is talking to a group, whether the speaker is child or adult, silence and attention are gently but determinedly insisted upon. Messes made are thoroughly cleaned before end of day. Art is a way of expressing emotional hurts in children who have seen much horror in this last year. These problems are immediately identified and effectively dealt with.

Camp kidsmART, which is in its third year, is funded by a grant from the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development. It is administered by Chris Jorge, Program Director, and Miriam Rankin, Program Coordinator. It serves 150 campers and provides employment to 26 teen assistants and 12 counselors (instructors), 4 of whom are junior counselors (college students). In addition to salaries earned, these young people are learning organizational and leadership skills. These opportunities are desperately needed in Rockaway. Counselors and teens have gone through a careful selection process to choose highly qualified and talented instructors and assistants who will be responsive to the practical and emotional needs of the children. Chris Jorge is a trained nurse and therapist. Her eyes are everywhere at all times. The staff knows where every camper is at all times. Even if it is across the road in building T-6 singing songs with counselor/guitarist John Shaffer or on a nature walk in this urban national park with counselor and bird expert Denis Macrae. Counselor Marina Callaghan is RAA arts education Program Coordinator. Counselor Kate Judge is former Program Coordinator of the camp. Parents clamber to register their children in it. Registration is filled almost as soon as it is opened. Lisa Cincotta echoes the words of many other parents – her son John doesn’t want to leave at the end of the day.

Campers are broken up into groups led by a counselor. Mamarina’s Mosquitoes, Khadyjah’s Clouds, Danny’s Ducks, etc. Each counselor is skilled at teaching a particular art or craft, but each is able to teach many artforms. Each day begins with Shaffer leading all in song. So no one is at a loss for an idea, each week has a theme. This week it is "fish." In the morning each group will work on one of a dozen different art skills, such as clay sculpting or intaglio printmaking. The activities are rotated among group each week so every child gets a chance at everything. A huge number of possible projects are offered to the campers within those separate disciplines. The afternoons are "clubtime" in which each child may choose in which activity he/she wishes to participate. Some choose Khadyjah Harper’s dance class. Some will do gardening. Children, teens and adults are also encouraged to come up with their own ideas for projects. Lunchtime is filled with sports and play. There are constant words of positive reinforcement leading these youngsters on their exciting journeys of self-discovery. Nine-year-old Alyssa Rios’ beautiful brown eyes grew larger and larger as she explained to me how she is finding out how talented she really is.

Camp kidsmART is a program that is unique on this peninsula. Our children have nothing else like it. All are welcome to observe it. Camp is held Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 9 AM – 2 PM in Fort Tilden through August 8.

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