Volunteer art program at St. Margaret giving kids an appreciation for creativity

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Rem Eiler carefully held the still damp clay dish he had crafted. As he admired his handiwork, he described the sponging technique he used to mould it into a small square dish, complete with imprints he'd made on top of the tray using a small branch from an evergreen.

"I'll probably give this to my mom," he said.

The fifth-grader at St. Margaret of Scotland School said he enjoys art, especially sketching. So when he was given the opportunity to try working with modeling clay during a recent art project at school, he decided to give it a whirl, even though it was something beyond what he would normally have considered.

St. Margaret students have been enjoying new ways of creating art, thanks to a new program called Art @ SMOS. The collaboration pairs parents, grandparents and other adult volunteers with faculty to provide art lessons as part of the school's curriculum. There are 388 students in preschool through eighth grade. More than 30 adults help volunteer with the program. In June, the group received a $1,000 grant from the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association, which has gone toward professional development for the volunteers as well as funding for the art coordinator.

Principal Julie Hesed said that the program, which is in its second full year, grew out of a desire to offer more specialized art instruction to students. Previously, classroom teachers had been teaching art to the students -- the school does not have a full-time art teacher on staff. Several parents who have special artistic talents got together and formed a volunteer group to come in and teach students every other week, as a supplement to what teachers already had been providing.

"Art is not only about our appreciation of beauty, but expressing our creativity and making a connection to God, our creator," said Mary Lisa Penilla, who coordinates Art @ SMOS. "This is especially helpful for students who love art. It's their way to understand and process the world."

Several years ago, parent Jen Kavanaugh volunteered to teach art to her son's class. She and Penilla eventually came together and started talking about the possibility of expanding the effort into a volunteer group, and then Kavanaugh went on to become a fifth-grade teacher at the school.

"It's completely transformed the school," said Kavanaugh. "The students have more artistic sensibilities, they have developed their art vocabulary, and they have a sense of being artists. When (art) becomes a piece of everything they do, it allows them to be better problem solvers, and to look at the whole, and the pieces of the whole."

Earlier this month, students participated in the first Artists in Action Exhibit. Almost a dozen adult volunteers came into the school to showcase their artistic talents, including acrylic on canvas, mosaics, jewelry and metalwork, watercolor, mixed media and graphic design. Afterward, students in third through eighth grades got the opportunity to create art using one of those techniques. The school received an anonymous donation of more than $300 to purchase supplies for the activity.

Yvonne Pena, a freshman at Bishop DuBourg High School and graduate of St. Margaret, came to the exhibit on her day off from school to help out. An eighth-grader last year, Yvonne said she enjoyed being able to try new art techniques. She said she was able to develop her interest in art thanks to the Art @ SMOS program.

"I was happy I could use my talents at school, and not just at home," she said.

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