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Sharing art with the neighborhood

Children in summer art program paint murals for their neighbors

BRATTLEBORO—Eight brightly colored mural panels hang across the back fence of the Ledgewood Heights basketball court, depicting flowers, blue skies, people, and, in big letters, “Ledgewood.”

At the murals’ Aug. 14 unveiling, parents came and took pictures, and a real sense of pride surrounded the kids who’d created and otherwise enjoyed them, said Art in the Neighborhood founder and Executive Director Mollie Burke.

“The kids were like, ‘This is my place,’” said Burke. “The murals became a way of celebrating Ledgewood.”

The murals were the crowning project for the first Art in the Neighborhood summer program, which offered classes twice a week at Ledgewood Heights, one of six public housing properties managed by the Brattleboro Housing Authority.

The Ledgewood program started in the spring with weekly art classes for kids aged 5 to about 12 at the 42-family apartment complex.

“It’s better to come to the neighborhood, because it creates this sense of community,” Burke said.

Burke, who also serves in the Vermont House, representing Windham 3-2, started Art in the Neighborhood (AITN), a tuition-free arts program serving low-income youth, in 2008.

As a long-time art teacher, Burke said she knew firsthand that kids engaging with art, and really bringing themselves to it, become more accomplished problem solvers.

Brattleboro has many wonderful arts programs, she said, but most require tuition. Enter the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, AITN’s fiscal sponsor. AITN participants often visit the museum as part of the program, said Burke.

Viewing and experiencing other works of art helps the kids think about their own work, she explained.

The kids in AITN took printmaking, puppetry, and pottery. Guided by head teacher and local artist Joan Peters, they also worked in paints and fabric.

Peters has a background in theater and ushered participants through painting the murals. She joined AITN in 2010 after Burke won her first term in the House and needed help running the program.

Burke and Peters also work with University of Vermont student, and Brattleboro Union High School graduate, Cleo Rohn.

Rohn has worked with AITN for four years. Burke described her as naturally outstanding.

“Most kids given the opportunity will sit down with paints and brushes and paper and get to it,” said Peters. She added that she feels humans have a deep need to create generally.

Burke and Peters’ conversation sidestepped into sewing machines and craft projects. The kids were fascinated by the boxes filled with scrap fabric, Peters told Burke. They made cat toys and pillows.

Peters observed that the kids’ fascination had much to do with the tactile aspect of fabric and sewing.

Burke nodded, saying that tactile experiences are something that many kids don’t get in this age of screens and keyboards.

“Does the program need to buy a sewing machine?” asked Burke.

Peters waved the question away.

“I’ll bring in my little beaters [old sewing machines],” she said.

About 15 kids at Ledgewood participated in AITN. Burke estimated the program serves 80 kids overall.

“It’s hard to measure success with the arts,” said Burke. A person’s progress in the arts has its own timeline.

Still, Burke has witnessed the kids growing with more confidence and pride through the arts, solving greater problems and expressing who they are as they work on creative projects.

Burke said she plans to continue the arts program at Ledgewood in the fall.

The Clark-Canal Street Neighborhood hosted the first Art in the Neighborhood program as part of its free and reduced summer lunch program, said Burke. The grant-funded program expanded to the Westgate Housing Community in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro.

The murals at Ledgewood are the third set of murals AITN participants have completed.

According to Burke and Peters, last summer Clark/Canal Street Neighborhood kids beat out adult artists to paint a mural at the Transportation Center on Flat Street.

Clark/Canal participants also painted murals hanging in the Hanna Cosman room in the Municipal Center.

Burke said she intends to expand AITN to Moore Court, a 28-apartment BHA property serving families on School Street, in the fall.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #217 (Wednesday, August 21, 2013).

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