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Art education outside the box … and the school system

Extracurricular art programs okay with kids and teachers

By: Scott Hayes

  |  Posted: Saturday, Nov 05, 2011 06:00 am

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  • Teacher Madonna Mikheil (L) leads some young artists at 4Cats art studio in Appleyard Square on Akins Drive. St. Albert has recently experienced growth in the number of private art schools.
    Teacher Madonna Mikheil (L) leads some young artists at 4Cats art studio in Appleyard Square on Akins Drive. St. Albert has recently experienced growth in the number of private art schools.
    GREGORY YAPP/St. Albert Gazette
  • Teacher Madonna Mikheil (L) works with children at 4Cats art studio in St. Albert.
    Teacher Madonna Mikheil (L) works with children at 4Cats art studio in St. Albert.
  • Lara Gerritse-Mercier, owner of Glazing Pot Studio and Gifts, helps students of Grandma Gooch Daycare with their pottery painting.
    Lara Gerritse-Mercier, owner of Glazing Pot Studio and Gifts, helps students of Grandma Gooch Daycare with their pottery painting.

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The days of schoolchildren mindlessly colouring inside the lines of a paint-by-number project may well be over, thanks to the cultural business community. While the private schools of fine arts are still filling classes and graduating satisfied customers, there are some new kids on the block who offer drop-in service or special events for a more relaxed experience.Carter Lavender, a patron of Grandma Gooch Daycare, participates in pottery painting at Glazing Pot Studio and Gifts.

Carter Lavender, a patron of Grandma Gooch Daycare, participates in pottery painting at Glazing Pot Studio and Gifts.
GREGORY YAPP/St. Albert Gazette
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No one’s complaining about the change either: not the instructors and certainly not the students.

Within the last year or two, studio stores that sell creative space and services have been popping up across St. Albert. Ask their proprietors what they’re in it for, and they’ll say it’s not about money. They love both art and teaching. It’s as natural a fit as anything, they say, plus it’s important to provide the young with more opportunities to express themselves and develop their skills.

Lara Gerritse-Mercier is the proprietor of Glazing Pot Studio and Gifts. She’s a former tutor, children’s programmer and elementary and junior high teacher. She always had a passion for the arts, something that she has already instilled in her own children’s lives. She explained why she began her store.

“This is something that my daughters and I just really love to do together, and it’s an extension of the education part of it,” she emphasized. “I love to do the planning and develop programs for kids especially in the area of art.”

Preparing raw materials

Last year Glazing Pot arrived right in the heart of one of the city’s major school centres, within walking distance of four schools from two school systems. There are daycares and playgrounds nearby too, parks and baseball fields within sight.

It’s nestled in the small strip mall associated with the Shell gas station and convenience store at the corner of Fairview Boulevard and Sir Winston Churchill Avenue. It’s a popular spot with the 2,000 or so students in the area, a fact amplified by the comic book store on site as well.

Gerritse-Mercier knows the values of location and of catering to her clientele. Her studio’s doors are open all day long (except Mondays) and even after the schools let out. Customers can schedule sessions from preschool projects to make gifts for Father’s Day or girls’ night out parties. They can also feel free to drop right in, even eat their lunches as they work on their projects.

People of all ages are welcome to work on clay or glass projects. There aren’t any wheel-thrown pots for customers to put together themselves. The projects are generally pre-made but unpainted clay objects that they can choose to work on.

This saves a lot of mess, Gerritse-Mercier explained, while still offering students the creative freedom to design to their hearts’ content. Her teaching philosophy allows for a lot of personal expression. If someone just wants to dive right in without an in-depth explanation first, then that’s just fine with her.

“Those people … I just show them where the paints are and they show me the way,” she laughed. “They teach me because I think we’re always learning.”

She cautions that it isn’t like passive learning exercises like colouring book pages. Her customer-students do have the option of taking a handbuilding class to put together their own clay creation if they choose. She gives them information about tools and techniques. She guides them with gentle understanding, not a schoolmarm’s pursuit of achievement and excellence. It’s more like playtime than pure instruction.

“Anything goes,” she said.

The next step in the process

The latest business in this category, 4Cats, opened up in Appleyard Square along Akins Drive a few weeks ago. It’s actually part of a chain of stores based out of Victoria, B.C. The franchise’s philosophy is much the same as that of Glazing Pot’s: give the people the space, the tools and the freedom to create.

At the same time, it also adds in a healthy dose of art history, with a monthly focus on different famous painters throughout history. The mainly child-aged participants show up in old clothes and are guided through painting styles and various influences of the old masters (and some of the newer ones too).

For their efforts they receive not only their finished products but also collector cards featuring the artist of the month. Each card has a special code that can be entered on the 4Cats website (at www.4cats.com) to see special videos on each artist.

Store owner Kristine Godziuk goes into detail about the environment and the activities.

“It’s not just to come and do arts and crafts. It’s about an appreciation for different artists, how they came about, how their art styles are so different. I think that helps kids identify that art doesn’t have to look like this to be good,” she said.

She also knows that there is not just a community desire for her business; there is a great need to give students the extracurricular opportunity to learn some very basic ways to express themselves, even if it takes place in a room where paint is freely and easily splattered on the walls.

“It’s not just about art. It’s about learning a little bit, and doing art, and letting them create too,” she said.

“Our motto is ‘no big deal’. For kids, you slap it on the floor or you get paint on you, it’s no big deal. The studio is designed to get messy.”

She adds that she has already established herself with local teachers and special field trips are in the works.

The jury assesses the finished product

With all of this arts education taking place outside of the regular school systems, one must wonder what the teachers from the actual classrooms think about it all.

Paul Kane art teacher Colleen Hewitt doesn’t take her students to these facilities because her program takes place entirely within the high school’s walls. Still, she sees a great value in giving kids more time for art and she lauds businesses such as these for taking art instruction into the real world.

“As an artist, I encourage my students to go to things like that because it keeps them working in the arts. Even when they’re taking an official program – whether it’s at university or high school or junior high – to maintain your practice outside of that is really hard sometimes,” she said.

Dixie Orriss, the proprietor of the long-standing Pygmalion School of Fine Art on McKenney Avenue, doesn’t necessarily categorize her business the same as 4Cats and Glazing Pot. It’s primarily a school of fine art, teaching classes of all ages drawing, painting and sculpture. It does, however, have some similar functions, including offering specialized parties for groups from the public.

Regardless, Orriss says that the real value of such extracurricular cultural activities has to do with the teacher’s focus and direct interactions with the student. She characterizes things similarly in her own business, but with an added emphasis on the impact on individual learning.

“I think it’s important for kids to have another venue,” she said.

“A lot of the times in the school system they don’t get one-on-one with the teachers, whereas if they’re taking private lessons or group lessons this way, they do get a lot more help and they seem to grow faster as artists.”


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