For the second time this year, the walls of Tomato Head are covered with the art work of the young.
It’s easy to consign children’s art only to that frequent gallery called the fridge, where bright splashes of color and abstract figures are hung with magnets and soon overlooked in the daily quest for snacks.
And it’s true that the work may not be sophisticated in the way adults often understand that word. But all art, whether it’s created by smooth little fingers or creased larger ones, has some representational value. Sometimes it’s symbolism, sometimes it’s a value like beauty or virtue, and sometimes, it’s nothing less than joy: the artwork created by students in Centro Hispano’s after-school program is chock full of just that.
Megan Barolet-Fogarty is the director of Youth and Family Engagement for Centro de
Hispano de East Tennessee, a non-profit organization “for education and social services to improve the quality of life and the successful integration of these families into the community.” And one of Barolet-Fogarty’s particular missions is to help children of these families through after school tutoring – which is what led her and her charges to the walls of our restaurant.
“We run tutoring usually 2 days a week after school. I was looking for ways not just to extend the school day by two hours and have them sitting in their seats for that whole time,” and she says she was looking for a way, “to have an educationally enriching that was also fun.”
But when Barolet-Fogarty uses the word fun in this context, it carries a lot more meaning than that word might normally signify because, “A lot of them,” she says, “are newcomers to our area and to the United States and are struggling with the language. So I wanted something other than to have them fill out worksheets or look at sight words when they’ve already been struggling to do that all day.”
The result is a program that not only fills the extra hours but offers students a hands-on introduction to the artistic heritage of Hispanic and native cultures. She notes that “for each project they get a worksheet that tells them about the cultural history of where art came from, we show them some examples, look at pictures, and talk about vocabulary related to that. And then they create their interpretation of what that art might look like.”
For the first project Barolet-Fogarty turned to Amate Bark, a native Mexican art form using bright colors painted on natural paper produced from bark for which she used crinkled paper bags and tempura paint because, she explains, ”Our after school programs are funded by the United Way and a number of other smaller grants, but at this point I really didn’t have any funding. So it was me coming up with the cheapest materials possible – but that’s also exciting because it’s something the kids can replicate at home which is always something that you hope for. They learn that you can create art not just from a fancy kit.”
Now through assistance from East Tennessee’s Chairman’s Club and a small foundation from New York, the Centro is able to engage an artist to help the children to learn and to develop their skills. The projects are varied and have included “Alibreje, a form of art created by Pedro Linares, who had a dream he was sick – of wild animals that were combinations like a coyote with a peacock tail or a dragon with am elephants snout – all sorts of mystical creatures. This is something that we did with papier-mache that was created in collaboration with Cattywampus Puppet Council.”
The value of the project is manifold. Of course the students learn more, but they also come away with a better sense of themselves. As Barolet-Fogarty puts it, “For us it’s really fun to see what they produce, so it’s not about the quality of the art. It’s helping kids who are struggling in their classes because they don’t really understand the language to find joy in learning something and have confidence in something they produce. That’s pretty great.”
Centro Hispano de East Tennessee students will exhibit at the West Knoxville Gallery Tomato Head thru May 6th.