UW News

August 7, 2008

An artful match: Summer day camps and the Jacob Lawrence Gallery

UW News

Not many student artists can say their work has hung in the prestigious Jacob Lawrence Gallery — but thanks to a clever connection, the elementary school-age members of the UW Summer Day Camp can make that boast with pride.

It’s rewarding for the young artists, and educational for the UW students who act as curators for exhibits of art made during the multidisciplinary two-week camps. The third and last of the exhibits will be open on Aug. 12 and 13, in the gallery, located at 132 Art, and the public is welcome.

The camp, for students entering first through fifth grade, is offered through UW Educational Outreach’s Summer Youth Programs. The classes explore various themes using art, science, drama and creative writing. To Space and Beyond came first, from June 23 to July 11; Sail the Seven Seas followed from July 14 to Aug. 1.

The third exhibit, which explores the Alaskan Gold Rush, is titled There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills. There will be an artists’ reception for all the student artists in the gallery from 1 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 12, and the exhibit will be open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 13.

The Summer Day Camp is part of a cluster of youth programs offered by Educational Outreach. Others include the Middle School Academy, Middle School Short Courses and writing and computer programming courses for high school students.

Connecting the young students’ art with the gallery was a match waiting to happen, said Judith Clark, director of advising and student services for the School of Art.

“Last year, I remember thinking, we’ve had these students in our building forever. The Jacob Lawrence Gallery was empty and I wanted to do a class to help our students learn how to curate and hang a show, and clean and paint a gallery,” Clark said. “These guys were right upstairs, it just seemed like a good idea.”

The class she created is Art 496, Working in the Visual Arts: Internship for Emerging Professionals Interested in Art Gallery and Museum Work, which she co-teaches with Kris Anderson, director of the gallery and a UW doctoral student in art history. The students in this class are curating five shows in all, three of which are for the Summer Day Camp students.

The idea was greeted with enthusiasm all around. “The summer day students were thrilled, and a lot of community members came to see it,” Clark said of the first exhibit.

Leslie Rome-Nagata, program manager for UW Educational Outreach, was equally pleased. “We’ve never been able to exhibit the kids’ work before. It’s always been things hung on a classroom wall or on a table.” The change to exhibiting in “an actual art gallery” was as exciting for the parents — who visit for the artists’ receptions — as it was for the children. In all three classes close to 600 children participated.

Though held in the summer and presented with fun and flair, the day camp classes offer academic value as well, and use art to help children deepen their understanding of larger topics. Derin Smith, an instructor for the Sail the Seven Seas session, gave his class a three-fold focus.

The three elements were:

  • Pacific Northwest Coast native art painting, where the students visited the Burke Museum, chose an image that interested them and used it to create their own acrylic painting.
  • Creating Japanese fish prints, or gyotaku, as fishermen did years ago to track the size and species of their catches. The students created their own Japanese paper with loops for hanging on a bamboo rod, inked up tilapia fish and printed away.
  • Creating their own abstract painting after viewing a 1913 work titled “Sea Battle” by early abstract Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. The students used watercolor and oil-pastel on paper to express their own feelings about the sea.

The process of bringing student art out of the classroom and onto gallery walls was interesting not only for the young artists, but also for the UW Art 496 students who managed the exhibit. One of the challenges in curating such a show is the large number of students and art. There were about 80 youngsters in the first set of classes, and each did about four pieces. That’s a lot of art to squeeze into a fairly small gallery.

“That was a real trick,” Clark said. The UW student curators had to figure out how to prepare the gallery and art in a way that reflects the goals of the Summer Day Program’s classes. “So when curating, one of the things you need to learn how to do is to pay attention to the original intent of the piece of work.”

Anderson said he and Clark have divided the 16 students in Art 496 into three groups, and “each gets to basically have full control over one show” — including the layout of the gallery and even the food served at the opening. “The goal of the class, from my standpoint, is that they have a small introduction and a little bit of experience with almost everything that they would have to do in a gallery setting.”

He said the process is about “making them think critically about who their audience is and what they need to do both in terms of the physical layout and the aesthetic experience and ambience, to mke the visitors’ experience as positive as possible.”

Andrea Harris, one of the student curators, wrote in an e-mail that “since the children were our main audience, and the focus of the exhibit, we decided to hang the work significantly lower than the standard height for most gallery shows,” to make viewing easier. Planning the refreshments for a younger crowd is especially fun, she wrote, “because we get to be more creative and serve things like Tang and Starbursts for the outer space exhibit, and blue Gatorade and fishy crackers for the Seven Seas exhibit.”

Marlisha Slaughter, another student curator, wrote that her class visited the Frye Museum, which has exhibited student art, to talk with staff about the process. She added, “By having shows in public settings, it makes a statement: These are the works of young artists, not just some art assignments by a bunch of kids.”

Anderson said the student curators are doing a “fantastic” job arranging and hanging the exhibits even under the constraint of having just a single day with the art on hand.

That may not be much like summer art camp, but it’s a lot like the real art world. Especially since, as Anderson noted, “When you work in the arts business, nothing really ever goes as planned.”