When Rachel Johnson, of Cosmopolis, first heard her 9-year old son, Noah, in the back seat of her car she could not believe her ears.
“He pointed and said ‘Hey Mom look at that sunset’ and then proceeded to tell me all the different ways he might capture it (artistically),” she said. “… And for a kid who is not always, you know, paying attention … it was just, like,‘Wow.’ ”
Johnson knows exactly who to credit for her son’s change in perspective, so to speak.
Cosmopolis School District Board Member Judi Lohr has altered many young minds in the past two years since beginning an after-school arts program at Cosmopolis Elementary, which hosts grades K-6.
“That’s exactly what I want to be teaching them,” Lohr said. ” A tree isn’t just green, there are nuances of color and when they’re driving down the road they should be looking at all of that.”
Lohr, who has a degree from Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, Wisc., and has operated her own art studio in the past, began thinking of ideas to bring back arts education to her community after watching art’s funding get cut repeatedly at the state-wide educators’ meetings she attends a few times a year.
Lohr isn’t the only one. Recent Washington State Arts Commission survey results include findings that 63 percent of principals are dissatisfied with the quantity of arts education in their schools and 33 percent of elementary students receive less than one hour per week of arts instruction.
Model program lauded
The story of Lohr’s after-school program was highlighted as a model of an innovative way to bring arts back to public schools this month in the Washington State School Directors’ Association’s May newsletter. May is Arts Education Month in Washington state.
Lohr’s program stands out as a prime example of how outside-the-box thinking can bring back art to school-age children, who may have lost their chance for in-school instruction due to budget issues. Interest in such ideas is high as more research surfaces suggesting the connection between arts instruction and success in other subjects and skills that are important in the every-evolving technologically and innovation-driven global economy.
“Every time I would just go away (from the meetings) in a tizzy. Because of course, what gets cut? Music, art, theater, dance,” she said, adding she thought the kids should have more formal arts instruction than the “cookie-cutter” crafts projects they might do once in a while with their teachers.
Lohr got her wish in 2011 after approaching Cheri Patterson, Cosmopolis School District’s Superintendent/Principal, who supported the idea almost immediately. Lohr did not waste any time, using her own funds to buy some basic supplies and planning further how she might structure the program.
“She (Patterson) initially wanted me to do it during the school day,” said Lohr. “But I said I didn’t want to, because then I’d get every Johnny and Suzy who didn’t want to be there … (it would be) a waste of my time.”
Cosi Lions helped out
Next, Lohr went to the Cosmopolis Lions Club to request funding for extra supplies and said they were more than happy to oblige.
“I said this is what I need and they wrote the check,” said Lohr, who said they were so supportive that they were even willing to give her as much the next year, though she did not need nearly the same amount. She is thrifty, using old cinnamon-bun proofing racks found in the back of the school’s gym as art drying racks. Before some grant money allowed her to buy two cases of chipboards to paint on, she used cut-up cardboard. “I already had many of the supplies I needed and I had decided I wouldn’t do some things again like give everyone a palette as I did in the first year. There was so much wasted paint.”
From there Patterson and Lohr set out to gauge interest and opened the after-school class for registration. To their surprise, from the school’s 157 students, about 100 of them requested to join the class.
“She (Patterson) came to me with this wad of papers and just kind of waved them in front of me and said, ‘be careful what you wish for,’ ” said Lohr.
For many students, the class is their very first introduction to some of the many basic concepts of art instruction, such as primary colors, said Lohr, who dutifully insists such basics are learned before any art work is created. Some students have found they are in for more than they bargained.
“Early on I weed out those who have attention problems, or are here because it is free daycare or are here to socialize,” she said. “… I have an open-door policy.”
Once the basics are established, Lohr teaches more art theory including college-level concepts, demonstrating how to use a color grid and how to create their own colors. After this, they progress to creating one or two still life pictures and one or two landscapes in oil pastels.
“I use Old Masters prints to demonstrate ideas and technique, getting a bit of composition techniques along the way,” she said.
After that, the students move up to two basic acrylic paintings, “using a limited palette,” said Lohr. They must paint either a sunset, a seascape or a sunset over seas— then they may move on to scenes of their choice.
Lohr continues her rigid regime with her second-year students, who begin with Prismacolor pencils and learn two-point perspective — not an easy concept to explain, but it is obvious from their artwork that Lohr’s instruction was well received.
“One of the first things I tell them is there are no mistakes, they all know that. The only words banned from the classroom are ‘do I have to?’ and ‘am I done yet?’ ” said Lohr, who communicates with the children through a mixture of loving sarcasm and instructive criticism.
“Sometimes I have to watch myself, but I think they all get me now, for the most part.”
awards and recognition
The second-year students are then given pictures of historic Cosmopolis buildings, which they recreate through their newly learned basic building shapes. Next, they learn to utilize oil pastels with their own choice of subject matter with individualized instruction for each student.
The program now has 36 students in three different sessions throughout the year, who have started new in the program or have stuck with it since the program began, said Lohr. The students are grouped according to their skill level — Beginners, Advanced, Masters and Studio — for the after-school meetings which last from 2:30 to 4 p.m. three times a week.
There was competition with choir and band on two of her scheduled days she said, with some children only able to make the program on days that there was no music scheduled.
“One should not have to choose between art and music!” said Lohr.
On Friday, Lohr instructs her advanced students in grades 1-5, some of whom come on Mondays to help instruct beginners. The added promise of a pizza party from Lohr likely helped in their generosity of time. Lohr said both the younger and older kids enjoy the interaction. It also helps that she is adored by her students who proudly show off their beautiful works of art, and work diligently on new pieces accepting criticism and tips from Lohr, who lets them know where “more shading would be nice” or “some white would help.”
“At first I thought it would be kind of too hard,” said Kate Holmes, an advanced-class sixth-grader, who is most proud of a beach and palm tree scene she won second place for at the Grays Harbor County Fair. “But once you get used to it, it’ll be easier and you’ll fall in love.”
Lohr’s instruction has received some well-deserved recognition. In August, students submitted 88 entries to the Grays Harbor County Fair winning 23 first-place awards, 36 seconds, 27 thirds and four Best-of Section awards. One of her students won the Best of Show at the Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival poster contest, with five other students also receiving awards.
She is always there for the students, even if it means time outside of the classroom. One student called Lohr from home, pleading with her for help — red paint had spilled onto a piece of artwork in the midst of being made with deadline nearing.
“People said, ‘What kind of teacher makes house calls?’ ” said Lohr. “But it was due, so I went over and I showed her what to do.”
Even with her undeniable energy, Lohr says she could use some extra help. She is requesting other artists who have a specialty or just some basic composition skills to come one day a week to instruct the kids — especially ones who could work with watercolor, a medium with which she is less familiar.
“And I’m always looking for parents to help at cleanup time, but I know it’s hard because so many of them work,” said Lohr who doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon in her quest to keep art alive in Cosmopolis.
“I always say I plan to do this as long as I’m standing and breathing,” she said.