Arts Organization Founded by KCAD Professor Grows Impact With Strong Roots in Local Community
Three years ago, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Painting Professor Margaret Vega began honing her vision for providing transformative creative experiences to local communities. But like any good idea, Vega’s needed fertile soil and nurturing care to reach its full potential.
artlink.gr – the umbrella organization Vega founded in the fall of 2014 that connects individuals in the Grand Rapids area through community-based arts programming – has found both of those things through an on-going partnership with KCAD as well as Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities and its Cook Arts Center.
KCAD Professor Margaret Vega helps lead a SiteStudio papermaking workshop in the sping of 2016
artlink.gr’s SiteStudio initiative started as a twice-a-week after-school arts workshop that connected students at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ (GRPS) Cesar E. Chavez Elementary with KCAD student volunteers. Working with Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities has enabled the initiative to engage even more young minds, and on a more involved level too. Students and teachers from Cesar E. Chavez Elementary and Southwest Community Campus – another GRPS school– now come to the Cook Arts Center during school hours to work with SiteStudio and its volunteers.
(above): Students at Cesar Chanvez Elementary during a SiteStudio painting workshop in 2014; (below): A young artist shows off his work
No matter how much it evolves, the goal of SiteStudio remains the same: to give K-12 students the freedom to explore their own creative potential in their own neighborhoods.
“It’s not that we’re trying to mold these young people into future artists or designers; it’s about giving them opportunities to express themselves creatively that they might not be getting elsewhere,” Vega says. “I believe – and my experiences with SiteStudio support this – that when you give children the tools and support to create freely, it encourages them to think about ideas and possibilities for themselves that they may not have considered otherwise.”
Cook Arts Center Program Director Steffanie Rosalez adds, “For many young people, their world is very small in terms of dreaming about what you can be. The Cook Arts Center is doing a lot of professional development work in terms of exposing kids to different careers and helping them envision their own goals, so working with KCAD students really adds to that. Just for the kids to know that there’s a college right here in Grand Rapids where they can go and learn how to create different things, and while they are there meet KCAD students who are working in all of these different creative fields, it’s inspiring for them to see possibilities for themselves.”
SiteStudio is all about exposing young learners to creative possibilities
One of the goals of SiteStudio has always been to frame creative projects in a larger context, and leveraging Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities’ strong relationship with GRPS has enabled the initiative to become a more integrated component of the young students’ education. In the fall of 2015, seven third grade classes from Cesar E. Chavez Elementary and Southwest Community Campus each came to the Cook Arts Center for sessions in which SiteStudio volunteers led the students through a project where they learned about, designed, and built different types of bridges out of popsicle sticks, string, glue, and other found objects.
Vega, Rosalez, and the KCAD student volunteers worked closely with GRPS teachers in developing the lesson plan to ensure that it connected to what the students were already learning in class. “We’re trying to overlap with their curriculum, and to show teachers that there are more ways of incorporating art into their existing curriculum so that kids can discover new ideas, strengthen their critical thinking, build process skills, and get hands-on engagement,” says Rosalez.
(above): A SiteStudio participant puts the finishing touches on his bridge; (below): The finished bridges were disaplyed in an exhibition at KCAD
Sara Cinadr, a third grade teacher at Southwest Community Campus, says that SiteStudio was the perfect compliment to what she and her students were working on in class. “In third grade Social Studies there’s an emphasis on Michigan history and geography and my class had already talked a lot about why we build things like bridges to adapt to our natural environment, so my students already had a frame of reference to understand the technical side of the project.”
Cinadr says that using a creative project to apply the science, math, and social studies concepts her students had already learned helped them to more effectively internalize the learning. “The students really own the knowledge – I think that’s the biggest part because of the hands-on application – and when they own it, they remember it.”
Both in 2015 and this year, artlink.gr conducted SiteStudio Spring Break Camps at KCAD that brought a number of students from the Cook Arts Center to campus for a printmaking and papermaking workshop. Like all SiteStudio projects, the Spring Break Camps culminate in an exhibition of the students’ work at KCAD. The students and their families are provided transportation to downtown Grand Rapids so that they can view the artwork, enjoy some refreshments, and tour campus.
(above): KCAD Drawing Assistant Professor Danielle Wyckoff leads a SiteStudio papermaking workshop; (below): Young students and their families celebrate during a SiteStudio exhibition held at KCAD in 2014
Vega believes these camps and exhibitions help erode some of the self-imposed barriers between downtown Grand Rapids and its surrounding neighborhoods.
“Almost 100% of these students have never been to KCAD before, and when they first tour the campus they tell me that they feel like they’ve found their home,” she says. “I’m on the Diversity Committee of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and the question always is ‘what can we do to get a more diverse group of people to come downtown?’ I’ve always been an advocate of meeting people where they live, because if you get them interested in what you have to present, they will also come to where you are.”
The partnership with Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities has also given rise to artlink.gr’s artist-in-residence program, which blends hands-on creative exploration with community engagement. In the winter of 2015, KCAD MFA Painting student Ricardo Gonzalez became the first artist to take up the position, working with students from the Cook Arts Center to create a mural in the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) parking ramp that reflected the history of the Grandville Avenue neighborhood.
Cook Arts Center students creating a mural at Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in the winter of 2015
Guided by Vega, artlink.gr’s spring 2016 artist-in-residence, KCAD MFA Painting student Elizabeth Sevick, created a mural with elementary school students from the Cook Arts Center that incorporates symbolism from Mayan, Aztec, African, Native American, and Incan cultures. The mural was installed in Roosevelt Park this spring as a part of a larger city initiative to redesign the park. Sevick, who grew up in Flint, MI, is no stranger to community art projects, having worked on a number of them in her local community alongside her father, who teaches art at the University of Michigan-Flint.
“The best part about working with younger children is that they’re more uninhibited; they’re willing to be silly and creative and just do something off the wall,” says Sevick. “I want them to take away a love of art, especially large public art, and a sense of belonging in their community and pride for it. I’m happy to be part of this bigger creative force; it’s an important thing for a community to support.”
(above): Cook Arts Center students working on a mural that was installed in Roosevelt Park in Grand Rapids; (below): KCAD MFA Painting student Elizabth Sevick and two SiteStudio participants in front of the completed mural
But it isn’t just the young students and the surrounding community that artlink.gr initiatives benefit. Vega says that through volunteering, KCAD students learn the considerable value, both personal and professional, of using their creative talents to make a difference in the lives of others.
“artlink.gr projects are about building relationships. It can be easy for students to fall into a routine of coming to school, doing their homework, working in their studio, and then going home just to repeat the same cycle the next day. The truth is that there is so much that they could be doing for the community, while experiencing the tremendous personal gift that comes from volunteering.”
Sabrina McLaughlin, who graduated from KCAD’s Painting program this past spring, was involved as a SiteStudio volunteer from the initiative’s inception. “The best part of SiteStudio is that the KCAD volunteers and the younger students learn from each other,” she says. “We’re being brave and stepping out into a totally new experience, and they’re discovering new things through this creative freedom that really gets them thinking differently.”
2016 graduates Sabrina McLaughlin (above) and Gunnar Forstrom (below) were integral to SiteStuio during their time at KCAD
McLaughlin says the experience has even influenced her own artistic practice. “I used to make art that was just therapeutic and personal. My art still deals with that, but now it’s more geared towards ‘what am I saying with this and what impact is it making?’ I see my involvement with the kids and the impact it’s having on them and I want my art to have a similar impact.”
As far as the future of artlink.gr is concerned, the organization remains in a state of constant evolution. In addition to expanding the number of GRPS students SiteStudio engages each session and developing a wider variety of curriculum-connected lesson plans, Vega is currently working with the Cook Arts Center to devise a way to provide tutoring space and technology for college-bound students that would include portfolio prep and review classes led by KCAD volunteers.
One Cook Arts Center and SiteStudio Spring Break Camp student, Alejandro, recently embarked on the journey to KCAD with guidance from both Vega and Rosalez. A senior at Innovation Central High School, Alejandro took a dual-enrollment class at KCAD this spring and hopes to continue on as an undergraduate in the fall.
“Alejandro always thought KCAD was a pipe dream. Now that it’s actually happening, he’s beside himself,” says Rosalez. “There’s an opportunity through the connection with SiteStudio and Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities for KCAD to reach all of Grand Rapids, into different parts of the city and different types of people, and have those students add their talents and perspectives to the school and to have a fuller understanding of what the city actually looks like. It’s not a lack of kids who want those opportunities, it’s a lack of awareness of what’s possible and the lack of access to the opportunities that exist.
To learn more about artlink.gr and SiteStudio, visit artlinkgr.weebly.com.