Among the goals of the Peoria Are Guild is the desire to develop the next generation of artists and art appreciators. One of the tools the Guild uses is ArtReach. According to PAG Education Director Michelle Traver, the fundamental goal of ArtReach is to literally reach into the community, bringing art and art experiences to those who wouldn’t otherwise have these opportunities.

ArtReach formally began in January, but Traver said it was preceded by and grew out of programs PAG already provided in fall 2001 to youth involved with local agencies such as the Tri-County Urban League and Youth Farm. “A program called the Art Enrichment Experience was offered to the local public and private schools at that time. The PAG actually has a fairly lengthy history of providing high quality art programs to local children—beyond the scope of the classes available to the public. In September 1990, the Mentor Apprenticeship Program (MAP) for high school students demonstrating artistic promise was begun by John Heintzman and Susie Best, and it’s now in its 12th year.”

Traver said the groups who participate in ArtReach tend to provide services to low-income, underserved clients. “Our current community partnerships include the Boys and Girls Club, Friendship House, Peoria Alternative High School, Peoria Youth Farm, Tri-County Urban League, and Whittier Primary School. Another component of ArtReach is after school art instruction at Trewyn Middle School and Blaine Sumner Middle School—both of which are designated as 21st Century Leaning Centers, a federal program through District 150.”

The groups are selected based on need. She said some of the agencies served wouldn’t have an art component at all if the Guild didn’t offer it. “Many new groups hear about our programs and approach us, but we also recruit. For example, PAG recently sponsored all-school assemblies at Harrison Primary and Trewyn Middle School featuring Ted Ellis, a well-known artist from Houston. We then held an afternoon painting workshop with Ellis, inviting the Boys and Girls Club and South Side Mission to attend, and through that contact, we identified the South Side Mission as a future participant in ArtReach,” Traver said.

The ArtReach program is adaptable and discipline based—with the discipline being the media, not the outcome, Traver said. “We determine the curriculum for each community partner group, providing them with a syllabus so they have a general idea of what to expect. We’re flexible. If they want their kids to work in clay, for example, we can add that to our planning. Generally, we include both two- and three-dimensional media, supplemented with components of art history and theory in all of our classes. Specific projects or skills are introduced, and each participant creates their own unique response or outcome. The curriculum is set, but the projects aren’t set up as ‘cookie cutter.’ It’s an alternative, integrative approach—the outcomes aren’t pre-conceived. We also don’t run class as an open studio since our populations are new and need to learn basic skills. In ArtReach classes, we strive to provide freedom within structure.”

She said ArtReach students range in age from five to 17 years old. “They participate in different projects based on their ages, although there are projects that are similar but result in more elaborate outcomes from an older group. The art projects of ArtReach are almost exclusively developmentally age appropriate. This is important because it takes into account the differing needs and abilities of our populations. The amount of one-on-one attention also changes depending on the project. ArtReach instructors are quite skilled and capable of adapting projects to meet the needs of the composition of the group. The age break down tends to be five- to seven-year-olds together and eight- to 12-year-olds together, although these can be joined if the agency or school requires it. Teenagers are always a separate group.”

At the end of the ArtReach program, the Peoria Art Guild displayed the students’ creations in the Guild’s gallery. Depending on which media they worked in, the time from the start of the project to displaying it in the gallery differed widely, Traver said. “Some of the groups exhibited watercolors, which tend to be rather quick and spontaneous. Other groups showed ceramics—a more arduous process—which requires time for drying, firing, glazing, and firing again. The kids didn’t make the work with the final exhibit in mind; we chose one or two of the projects they made during the course of the session. The kids did enjoy having their work in the gallery—and the opening reception. It’s our way of letting them know we take them and their work seriously. It’s also a means to hold them up to the community.”

Traver said there are two major reasons ArtReach and similar programs are needed in the Peoria area. “The benefits of art and an arts education have been well substantiated in current research. The research also indicates, though, that America’s children aren’t getting enough of the active learning available through participation in arts activities. The process of art and art experiences involve children in methods of inquiry that aid their problem solving and critical thinking skills. Children develop a sense of craftsmanship, goal-setting abilities, and a healthy means of self-expression through art. They learn directly about how things work while making art, and this fosters individuals who appreciate the world around them and are capable of taking pride in their own accomplishments.

“ArtReach is also needed because agencies have expressed a need for programs that truly engage their kids and help their attrition rates. Our culture is bombarded with an excess of visual information, yet little training in what that actually is, how it functions, and why. Beyond raising the aesthetic awareness of children and youth, art teaches essential life skills, so it only made sense to implement a program such as ArtReach. The central location of the Peoria Art Guild is also key because it’s close to most of our community partners, easing transportation issues. Since PAG is nearby, the kids we work with are more likely to visit us at other times. The relationships we establish are an important aspect of ArtReach. It’s a worthwhile investment in this community because caring for and providing for the children and youth of this community builds and sustains this community. As I see it, our future depends on it,” she said. AA!