History of the Northwest Art Project

HISTORY OF THE NORTHWEST ART PROJECT

Dee Dickinson and Tricia Tiano

 This is the story of how and why 250,000 children learned to understand and appreciate the visual arts through the Northwest Art Project, the longest lasting project of the Junior League of Seattle.

In the late fifties Sputnik went up and the boom came down on public education, bringing in intense focus on improving math and science skills but also, in the process, cutting budgets in the arts. In fact it seems that since then whenever public school budgets are cut, the arts are the first to go. Yet in every culture since the beginning of human history, the arts have been essential parts of daily life, decorating cave walls and early tools and utensils. The arts have been the high point of every civilization. Furthermore, they have always been essential components of the finest educational systems, not just because they have cultural value, but also because they are languages that all people speak.

Fifty years ago the Junior League’s Community Arts Committee was concerned about the lack of arts education in public schools and created the Northwest Art Project to restore some of what was being lost. School halls were often dingy and on the walls were only faded reproductions here and there. Dee Dickinson, chair of the committee at that time, was aware that the Northwest was an unusually rich source of visual art by local artists who were already gaining worldwide acclaim. She was also painfully aware that there were many children who had never seen an original work of art and had never visited an art museum. There was as, a result, a real void in their education that might be filled by learning to understand and appreciate artistry and have opportunities to do creative work of their own through the guidance of trained docents.

Dee first approached Dr. Richard Fuller, who was at that time the director of the Seattle Art Museum, then located in Volunteer Park. He had never had children of his own, and when he heard about the proposed project he was not pleased with the idea of bringing original works of art into the schools. He also did not appreciate what the project might do to enhance children’s understanding and appreciation of the visual arts, inspiration, and imagination, as well as leading to their becoming future museum-goers.

She next approached Kenneth Callahan, who was wildly enthusiastic about the proposed project. He said, “Come with me.” They went upstairs to a guest room, and he pulled out from under the bed two magnificent paintings that he said he had been saving for a major museum collection. He said, “Take your pick. Let the children come close to see it well. Let them touch it and feel it and smell it. If it gets dirty bring it back to me and I’ll clean it off with a raw potato. Encourage them to look at it carefully and tell what they think it means!!”  That visit launched the project, and Callahan’s magnificent painting, “Crystalline World,” led it off.

A small jury was created composed of professional art experts including Junior League member Virginia Wright, a well-known collector of art. They counseled the committee on which artists to add and they next approached Guy Anderson, Paul Horiuchi, George Tsutakawa, James Washington Jr., Spencer Moseley, and Glen Alps. Later, through a Junior League grant, paintings by Mark Tobey and Morris Graves were added, and a painting by Helmi Juvonen was acquired by sending art materials to the hospital where she was a patient.

The project was planned to be taken into the schools by Junior League docents who were trained in how to make their visits interactive, not just informational, and a number of different trainers, artists, and visits to studios have been involved over the years.  As a result the docents have helped children to see with fresh eyes, looking for hidden meanings, appreciating the colors and designs, leaning about the use of different media, responding with their own views of the artworks, and being inspired to create some works of their own. The visits often become multisensory experiences as children imagine walking into a painting, hearing, feeling, or smelling what it is like inside. At times music is used to blend with the rhythms of a painting, or children are asked to make sounds like those of the animals pictured, or to give a work of art a title of their own, or write a short story or poem in response to what they see. The works of art are left at the schools for several weeks so that further exploration and inspiration may occur.

Initially, the League docents received their training at the Seattle Art Museum, and later at the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus where they learned about art principles and studied art history. The artworks in the League’s collection were kept at the Henry Gallery when they were not in use in the schools. At that time, the docents themselves would take some of the artworks to the different schools in their own cars. As the collection grew, however, crates were built and storage and transportation were arranged. Later on the trainings and storage moved to the League office in Madison Park. As the collection continued to expand, more space and controlled temperature in the environment were required, so the artworks were transferred to Artech which now cares for them when they are not traveling.

In 1994, a relationship began with the Bellevue Arts Museum, and during that time the Junior League docents offered training on how to present the artworks interactively to teachers and PTA parents on the Eastside. This connection has extended the reach of the project. Also, since 2001, a professional art education consultant, Halinka Wodzicki, has helped enlarge the scope of the docent training. She has written extended learning activity packets that are given to the teachers to help them connect the children’s art experiences to their curriculums.

During the last 50 years, over 500 Junior League docents have been part of the project that has reached over 250,000 children in around 600 schools in King County. In 2004, the Northwest Art Project was displayed at Harborview Medical Center; however, in 2010, the entire collection, which now includes 75 works of art, was displayed for the first time in a museum setting at the Bellevue Arts Museum.

Docents have reported numerous rewarding results of their visits to the schools. During one visit, an autistic child who had never before spoken in class talked eagerly about a painting he had fallen in love with and after that he continued to participate more frequently in class discussions. One student was fascinated by Jack Chevalier’s mixed-media piece, “Lighthouse,” and said she would like to have it for her own because it would help her with her math. In another class one of the students was so inspired that he continued working on his own painting and missed lunch in the process. In an English as a Second Language class, a docent asked the children what they thought the people were anticipating in Joe Max Emminger’s “Two People Waiting.” One student answered “Freedom” which led to a rich discussion of expectations and experiences one has in coming to a new country. Children are so often stimulated that they are still anxious to give their interpretations of the art when the period ends. Children’s eager participation, thoughtful interpretations, artworks, poems, stories, dances, and dramatizations continue to surprise not only the docents but also the children’s own teachers.

Now in its 51st year, the Junior League’s Northwest Art Project includes not only paintings and drawings but also collages, sculptures, glass art, and carvings. It continues to meet the needs that motivated its inception. Public schools still face budget cuts in the arts, and there are often fewer opportunities to develop higher order thinking skills, applied learning, and seeing projects through from beginning to end. These skills are in great demand today as any kind of employment and even daily living require more creative thinking and problem-solving abilities. Recent studies (as reported in the media such as the July17, 2010 issue of Newsweek) have shown that creativity has been declining in our country at the same time as creative thinking is being emphasized in the schools and is rising in the workplaces of other countries. Even the U.S. Patent Office is concerned.

Another current need in education, as diversity increases in school populations, is for a greater variety of teaching and learning styles that teachers often learn through observing the docents’ visits. Many teachers are able to integrate what they have observed into other parts of the curriculum as well, resulting in their students’ greater understanding and ability to apply what they have learned.  The Northwest Art Project continues to seek ways to fill some of today’s needs as well as those in the years ahead to help in the development of “whole” human beings, mentally, physically, and emotionally.

November 2010, the Junior League of Seattle proudly debuted its newest publication, The Art of Discovery. This book is colorful, engaging and instructive whose purpose is to educate, stimulate and inspire young minds through vivid images of art created by significant artists represented in the Junior League of Seattle’s Northwest Art Project and provides the volunteer-based community program with an on-going fundraiser in which profits from the sale of the book will be returned to the community through funding of the Northwest Art Project.

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