Visual Arts

A Week in Dutch John: Teaching Art in Rural Communities

Terrece Beesley with students at Dutch John

by Terrece Beesley

It’s March, 2008 and I’m arriving in the rural community of Dutch John, Utah, near Flaming Gorge, car loaded down with art supplies, groceries, and entertainment options intended to last me a week as I participate in the Utah Arts Council’s Artist in Residence Program. With no grocery stores, no Reuels, Michaels, or Utrecht, I am clearly out of my element, and I’m a bit nervous. Have I thought of all the details? Have I planned adequately for student projects? Will students and teachers be happy with what I’ve planned? Will I get any of my own work done?

My stint as artist in residence was an adventure, one I’d encourage other artists to try. Here’s my story.

The Utah Arts Council’s Artist in Residence Program was founded with the belief that artists make an invaluable contribution to the educational process. Residencies and exhibitions are yet another way to bring the contemporary art and artists featured in the series directly to local communities and audiences. Providing an opportunity to interact with new work and new ideas, residencies can initiate important conversations and create forums for further public dialogue. In residencies ranging from 10 to 290 days, artists have in-depth contact with one or more target groups of participants. In addition, other participants may be involved in a residency through schools where the artist is scheduled 20 hours per week. The remainder of the week is free for the artist to pursue his/her own work. There is usually a public event involved as well as in-service programs for the teachers.

Students working on a Jackson Pollock project

In my situation, because the school is small and I was teaching the entire school, we split my sessions into two one week trips. Otherwise I would have tied up the entire school for two weeks.

Working at a small rural school demands a great deal of planning. Lesson plans must be provided to the school far ahead of schedule so they have time to order supplies or, in some cases, drive to pick up the supplies an hour or more away. Planning out even the tiniest details for student projects is essential because there’s no quick trip to the store for forgotten supplies. Internet hookups are dependent on the local gas station or restaurant. Fortunately, what Flaming Gorge and other remote schools lack in resources and night life, they more than make up for in scenic beauty and outdoor activities.

The isolation of these small rural schools is a factor with advantages and drawbacks, which the teachers have addressed in a number of creative ways. Children in remote schools are not cut off from the world; with wireless internet and satellite they are just as tuned in as anyone else. One of my younger students was addicted to Sponge Bob Square Pants, and every project last fall turned out resembling Sponge Bob. Student test scores are comparable or higher than those of children in larger schools. Teachers and staff fill in where needed, including preparing lunches and driving the school bus. What these small remote schools do desire is one-on-one contact with professional artists. Dedicated teachers who write and receive grants every year keep a steady supply of artists on their way to Flaming Gorge.

My class sizes were grouped by age. One class had eleven students consisting of kindergarten, first and second grade students. The second class was eight students in third and fourth grades. Flaming Gorge has no fifth and sixth grades this year. The challenge is to teach all grade levels at once, keeping the project simple for the younger kids, while challenging the older students and entertaining kids who aren’t particularly interested in the arts. The very small class sizes make it possible to know and help each student personally.

Student working on an Andy Warhol project

Large, messy projects, such as Jackson Pollack action painting, can be done at a small school. We did ours in the gym. The pitfall is that after doing some projects at a small school, it might be tempting to try it with a class of 27 students. Smaller class size doesn’t mean less work. Classes move faster and require more preparation. On a couple of occasions I have come up short, when the class finished my project far ahead of schedule and I had another half-hour to fill. Time to punt! Lesson learned: Be prepared with extra activities.

Everyone knows everyone else in Dutch John, so it feels like a real community. People tend to take care of each other. When I tried to buy four stamps, with only enough money for three, the postmistress gave me the stamp and told me to put the remainder in the mail box the next day. Everywhere I went children greeted me, and their parents talked to me about the day’s project. The entire community came out for Gallery Night, leaving to attend a town meeting as soon as we finished.

There is enormous gratitude for artists willing to travel so far to be with the students. The artist can be a catalyst for change, the creative spark that helps a classroom, school, district, or community realize that the arts can be part of everyone’s daily life as well as a valuable element in students’ ongoing education.

As an artist in residence, I am grateful too — for the opportunity to stretch, grow, and share my gifts, and for the hugs when I walk in the door.

Children doing an art project at Dutch John

To learn more about the Utah Arts Council’s Artist Residency Programs, visit their website.

Categories: Visual Arts

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