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Art = Smart 

KID smART, a local arts-education organization, gives underserved kids important life skills -- one plate at a time.

Upon walking into the KID smART children's art studio in Central City, one can't help but feel the creative energy that permeates the room. Coffee cans crammed with paintbrushes of all sizes and types line a paint-splattered sink and countertop stocked with brown paper towels and a gallon-size jug of Zep orange hand cleaner. At the far end of the room, scrolls of brightly colored paper hang neatly, awaiting the fulfillment of young artists' visions.

Elsewhere in the studio, finished collages, sketches and paintings decorate nearly every free inch of wall space amid cabinets and bookshelves filled with art history books and various studio supplies. The collection serves as both a visual reminder of busy days past and a harbinger of future creativity.

In recent months, KID smART students have focused most of their creativity on the organization's annual Plate Project, a program that combines artistic creativity with entrepreneurship.

Open to public school children ages 8 to 14, the Plate Project is one of several arts education programs operated by KID smART, a charitable nonprofit that gives underserved public school kids an intense dose of hands-on arts education by professionals in several disciplines. Kids participating in the project meet once a week on Saturdays with a local artist and with Junior League volunteers (whose donations fund the program) to make and decorate ceramic plates, bowls and trivets for an exhibition and sale at the end of the school year.

After finishing a piece, each student writes a description to accompany his or her work, identifying the work's title, inspiration, theme and design.

This year's exhibition will begin with a reception for the kids at 4 p.m. Saturday (May 19) at RHINO Contemporary Craft Gallery. The opening reception will give students a chance to greet the public, talk about their work and display their pieces for sale. The exhibition will continue for three months.

Araisia Collins, a 13-year-old student at McDonogh 15 Elementary School, is completing her fourth year in the program. She says describing her inspiration isn't always easy. "If it's Christmas or Thanksgiving, we do something like that. If it's random, we think of something we like that's interesting to us and interesting for people to see. Sometimes the writing is hard because if you have a squiggly line [as the plate's main theme], it's hard to write a story about that."

As part of the program, students are required to keep track of their work on timesheets and to participate in a budgeting plan. At the outset of the program, they identify a goal or an item they'd like to save their money to purchase. Each week, they meet with an artist for a one-on-one evaluation of their work that day, discussing such things as progress and focus, technique and studio courtesy.

Each week that a student meets the program's requirements, he or she receives a $3 stipend, which is recorded in a personal bankbook. Students may take home a percentage of their stipend each week, but they are encouraged to save. At the end of each semester, the kids go on a shopping trip with the money they've saved -- and they learn how to write out personal checks for their purchases.

"When we're teaching kids, it's not just that we're teaching them art, we're connecting it to other curricula like literature, social studies, math and science," says Echo Olander, executive director of KID smART. "The kids think we're making things and having art projects, but what's happening is they're doing a little bit more."

Kyla Creecy, an 8-year-old McDonogh 26 student who likes decorating her plates with butterflies that smile and wear shoes, says she has learned to save her stipend. "At the end, we can probably have some more money to buy something -- something expensive," she says.

India Jackson, 14, another McDonogh 15 student, says she'll probably use her money to buy an outfit for her dog. Her favorite part of the program is decorating the plates and choosing a color scheme. "I just like coloring," she says. "I like to make designs and put pink in it because I like the color pink. One of my plates was [titled] 'Pinkalicious.'"

All KID smART programs are designed to teach students important life skills in entrepreneurship, finance, accountability and self-sufficiency, in addition to improving their literacy and artistic abilities. The Plate Project likewise teaches them how artists display and market their work and support themselves beyond the studio setting.

When asked if he'll become an artist when he grows up, 10-year-old Philip Barbarin, also of McDonogh 15, says art will always be a hobby for him. He adds that his favorite part of the project is "painting for other people."

Araisia agrees.

"I like art as a hobby, a second thing I want to do," she says. "I want to be a vet. But art, I could do that too."

Araisia describes KID smART as "a place where you can be comfortable and be yourself and everybody gets along. We get to do our own thing; we do what we want to do on our plate. The instructor helps us to do it right, but it's our plate, so we do what we want. Kids probably don't have plates and baking and stuff like this at school, so it's a good thing because you have something new to do -- to make a plate with [your] name on it."

Unfortunately, not every elementary school child has access to hands-on arts education. That's why KID smART runs several programs designed to bring arts education back into local public schools. In addition to the Plate Project, KID smART offers an "artists in the classroom" program that places artists in public school classrooms for extended residencies, during which time they design art projects that work in tandem with individual teachers' lesson plans.

As attractive as KID smART programs sound, the organization has at times encountered difficulties getting into public schools. Olander explains that prior to Hurricane Katrina, because most Orleans Parish public schools had fallen so far below the state's academically "acceptable" standards, many schools set aside programs for music and art in favor of focusing on standardized test-taking skills. Olander says the focus on test scores led to the elimination of many so-called "superfluous" programs that educators now know to be vital to kids' academic and personal enrichment.

"How do you know kids are succeeding? You give them standardized tests and that will you tell you everything -- that's the theory," Olander says. "Schools were being judged on whether their kids were doing well on the tests, so they started cutting things they felt were not helping kids succeed on the tests. Art and music were seen as really fluffy, so there was a movement, actually from the 1980s onward, of removing the arts from schools."

By the time Katrina hit, New Orleans public schools were left with a paucity of arts resources, with each school employing as little as one part-time music or visual arts instructor for the entire school.

KID smART programs encourage children to tap into their natural creativity, a wellspring of talent that may go largely ignored in their everyday classroom experience. KID smART's mission -- "to work with the arts to engage children in learning about themselves and the world in which they live" -- is based on the work of Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at Harvard Graduate School of Education who pioneered the concept of multiple intelligences, says Olander.

"Gardner has identified that kids learn in different ways, but many schools teach only in one way," Olander says. She explains that Gardner's work has shown there are multiple ways to learn, from verbal and mathematical, to spatial, visual, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal, and naturalist skills -- but school curricula often teach only through verbal and mathematical skills, such as standing in front of a classroom using words to explain concepts.

Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences indicates that while everyone has a range of intelligences, not every child's strongest skill sets for learning are verbal or mathematical.

Olander says KID smART's programs are thus "about teaching to the whole child and reaching those kids who might not be finding their islands of competency in the classroom. ... If you teach them in a way that engages them and allows them success, they can then transfer that area of success to another area. If they've never been good in math, but they're making mandalas (which include learning skills to measure geometric shapes and patterns), they say, 'Oh I can do this, this isn't that big of a deal.' Music is a really big one for that. Kids have a really hard time with fractions, but if they do beats they can get fractions really simply."

Katrina turned the public school system upside-down, but it also marked the advent of a systemwide movement for charter schools, such as the KIPP charter school at McDonogh 15. "It's a great time for education in New Orleans," she says. "The teachers and the kids in the schools are all really interested in the arts so that's great news for us. People are really welcoming us and working with us."

The Plate Project's opening reception will be hosted at RHINO Contemporary Craft Gallery at The Shops at Canal Place, 333 Canal St., third floor, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 19, with students present from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit KID smART's Web site at Corrections In a story titled "Dining With a Few Reservations" (April 10, 2007), we erroneously quoted the owner of Deanie's Seafood Restaurant as stating that Deanie's in Bucktown flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Neither of Deanie's two locations -- in Bucktown and in the French Quarter -- flooded during the storm.

The photo caption with the review "Sea Worthy" (Stage, May 8), misidentified the writers of Dames at Sea. The musical was created by Jim Wise (music), Jordan Hott and Jack Millstein (lyrics and book). Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.

click to enlarge Echo Olander (standing), executive director of KID smART, - watches as young artists Kyla Creecy, India Jackson, Araisia - Collins and Philip Barbarin work on their projects. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Echo Olander (standing), executive director of KID smART, watches as young artists Kyla Creecy, India Jackson, Araisia Collins and Philip Barbarin work on their projects.
click to enlarge India Jackson, 14, Philip Barbarin, 10, Araisia Collins, 13, - and Kyla Creecy, 8, show off the artful plates they made at - KID smART. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • India Jackson, 14, Philip Barbarin, 10, Araisia Collins, 13, and Kyla Creecy, 8, show off the artful plates they made at KID smART.
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