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Artists in Bloom

Some art gallery openings are served up with wine and cheese and understated elegance. The April 6 reception at Medford's Rogue Gallery & Art Center wouldn't qualify as elegant (too much cupcake frosting on upper lips and even noses), but for 32 young artists making their art gallery debuts, the excitement rivals any New York opening.

"I've had other pictures hung on walls in school, but I've never had my picture in an art gallery," says Tamira Smith, a fifth-grade student at Jackson Elementary in Medford. "Maybe I'll be an artist someday."

"It makes me feel special," says classmate Ari Albarran. "My picture is up there, and people get to see it. I hope they will think that I'm nice and that I draw good. They'll probably see how much effort I put into it."

The cupcake and fizzy-water reception is a springtime celebration of artistic achievement that began last fall.

It's a fog-gray November day. Kristi Burkett's fifth-grade class enters the Rogue Gallery with none of the fidgety energy typical of 10- and 11-year-olds liberated from school. Instead, they enter quietly, even shyly. Only two of the students have been in an art galley before.

But when the Jackson Elementary students step into the color-saturated main gallery they spread out eagerly, chattering brightly about brilliant watercolors of Italy and Portugal. European scenery may be unfamiliar to them, but the children respond to the artwork with genuine appreciation. Coming from one of the most economically challenged schools in the state doesn't diminish their sense of possibilities.

"I'd like to live there," one boy says confidently, pointing to a painting of Venice on the Grand Canal.

Burkett's class is the focus of a year-long pilot program to help fifth-graders meet curriculum benchmarks in art. Supported by a small grant from the Reed and Carolee Walker Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation, the program offers three gallery field trips and six classroom artist visits.

The pilot year begins with outreach to students limited by money, language and culture.

"We started by researching which Medford school was the most financially challenged, which served the population with the greatest need. We came up with Jackson Elementary," explains education director Holly Kilpatrick.

Says development director Heather Crow, "We wanted to see them blossom, to just be children, not 'children in need.' We did research on the value of art education. Art not only improves the level of schoolwork and results on standardized tests, it also boosts self-confidence."

The ability of art to enhance self-esteem becomes evident when students begin painting in the gallery classroom. Although initially hesitant to speak about themselves, as the paint flows, personalities bloom. The same youngsters — with little to say for themselves minutes before — now eagerly volunteer to discuss their art with proud, expressive language.

"This is a waterfall going down with foam falling hard," says Lupita Chavarin, describing her artwork. "There are red rocks, green plants that hang, far mountains and tall tree tops."

Gladys Centeno paints a cheerful garden. "There are lots of plants, lots of designs, lots of tomatoes and cucumbers," she explains. "I like watching gardens sparkling by the sun."

The power of art to liberate language is no surprise to Jackson Principal Tom Ettel, who earned an art degree himself. Ettel's written comments for the grant proposal underscore the need for the program.

"Our students are from one of the highest poverty pockets in Oregon," writes Ettel. "Eighty-eight to 93 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Twenty-five percent qualify for federal homeless programs. We work them very hard in basic academic skills, which gets their minds out of poverty. We have moved academic programs aside for the arts ... in order to get their souls out of poverty."

But lifting souls out of poverty is a complex task. One student confides that she felt worried when she first heard about the gallery field trips.

"I didn't know what my parents would say because of the money. We don't have money to drive me here," she says. Fortunately, bus transportation is included in the free program.

After 11 years at Jackson Elementary, teacher Kristi Burkett understands the financial constraints affecting Jackson families.

"To have a field trip where the bus is paid for — that's an issue. In no way, shape or form do I plan anything for my class that requires money. There's no way. In most schools, parents take their children to museums, they travel more. Our students don't have those opportunities. Many of them didn't know what a gallery was."

"Parents are excited that the kids get to go," Burkett continues. "These are hardworking families trying to make it and they are committed to their children. All my parents attend conferences, I had 100-percent attendance this fall."

At the heart of the program is the belief that financial limitations should not determine art opportunities.

"Appreciating art is a part of a well-rounded education," asserts Kilpatrick. "To deny people that just because it doesn't seem feasible, because they can't buy art, is a travesty and a terrible assumption on our part. Anyone can appreciate and create art, despite what's happening in their lives."

Field-trip activities alternate between gallery discussions with Kilpatrick and hands-on instruction with artist Eva Fawcett. After each lesson, students incorporate new techniques into their own creations. Cheerful scenes abound: peace symbols, hearts with arrows, gardens and playgrounds.

"It's a place for kids to play," says Jazmin Ramirez of her painted playground in which one sign says "Wonderland" and another says "Welcome."

Marilizeth Valdovinos tells a sadder story, "It's a canoe in front of mountains, but it's by itself because maybe the man fell into the water and got lost. The canoe is left, but the man couldn't be found."

Alma Gomez is painting as fast as she can, a wild wash of diagonal bands of color. "I do a variety of different shades, then add water so it blends together. Tie-dye is my favorite thing, other than stripes and polka dots," she adds.

Stripes are popular also with Rudy Vega, who paints vertical bars in black, green, blue and red. "Stripes are my favorite color, they remind me of a whole bunch of things I used to have."

One boy abandons his paintbrush in favor of his finger. His paper is a pointillist profusion of dots. He doesn't respond when asked about his work. His classmate, Eric Regaldo, explains that Fernando Jacobo doesn't speak English and offers to translate.

"Can you ask Fernando what he is painting?"

"Imagination," is the translated reply.

"In addition to homelessness, migrants and poverty, we have a high number of English Language Learners at Jackson — over 40 percent — which is a challenge to teaching," explains Burkett.

"We give a double dose of reading instruction twice a day. If a student just came from Mexico, it's three times a day. It's a busy day every day, but worth it, especially for those children with high needs. They are the most gratifying students you have. They are thankful and gracious for the attention and help."

Kilpatrick describes a girl who came up to her at the end of a gallery session with an art response written in Spanish.

"I realized how much of what I was saying was hard for her. I was so proud of her. Some of these children from non-English speaking backgrounds are really absorbing the vocabulary. They are working so much harder than we give them credit for. Its miraculous."

Recently retired language teacher Kathy Yeoman attends a gallery field trip to translate student interviews in Spanish.

Fernando Jacobo has been in the United States less than a year. Although he stoically downplays the difficulty of attending school where he can't speak the language, Fernando's face relaxes gratefully when Yeoman converses with him in his native language.

When asked about his artwork, Fernando explains, "It's imagination. It's just something inside. I like this art class because we can draw what we want. I feel good that I can do that. I can show people."

Like Fernando, Liliana Diaz cites math as her favorite subject. "Numbers are the same in English and Spanish," she explains.

"I like the art class," continues Liliana, who came from Morales, Mexico, last year. "I like when we draw faces because we have to represent what they have in their faces."

When asked what she would like people to understand about being an English Language Learner, Liliana replies simply, "I speak what I know."

It's another fog-bound morning, this time in January, but the new Jackson school lights up the neighborhood with large, luminous windows. Well before 8 o'clock, Burkett's fifth graders are settled at their desks, eager for another lesson from artist Eva Fawcett.

On each student's desk is a lunchbox in vivid green or red, art kits provided by the Rogue Gallery.

Explains Kilpatrick, "Another piece of the grant was to provide each student with art supplies to take home. A lot of time and care went into picking what goes into the kits. We knew that they would share with their families."

January's lesson is on color theory: primary and secondary colors, complements, value and intensity. But Fawcett, a native of Sweden, is incapable of making the "h" sound in "hue," which starts her laughing.

"I have to admit that Eva being Swedish was part of the piece," says Kilpatrick. "It's a good experience for the children to see successful adults who have entered the country as non-primary English speakers. It encourages them."

Fawcett appreciates the relevance of art for every student.

"I want children to understand that art is a tool you can use your whole life. If you do art, you have an easier time with other subjects. If you take away music and art in the schools, you are depriving kids of a full education. To take that away in schools is depressing."

Fawcett is gratified to see students applying her lessons in their artwork, particularly perspective drawing. Cristobal Gomez works with a ruler and intense concentration. Chris Sloggett's road winds past corn and houses, trailing off in the mountains.

Fernando Jacobo brings a spectrum of colors to a row of square houses with triangle roofs. Each house, and its corresponding segment of sidewalk, is a different color of the rainbow.

Learning to talk about art is central to the program. Kilpatrick introduces aesthetic concepts and explains styles. Students are asked to identify techniques and contextual clues in artwork. They also are encouraged to accept differing tastes in art.

"Art is like corndogs," Kilpatrick tells the children during their February field trip. "Either you like them or you don't. One person may love a painting, another person doesn't."

Crow says, "We give them the language to say what they do and don't like and become tolerant of other viewpoints. That translates to other situations."

Viewing a retrospective on the gallery's 50-year history, students act as art jurors, selecting and describing a favorite piece. Tamira Smith picks "First Snow" by Jacksonville artist Eugene Bennett, who founded the Rogue Gallery a half century ago.

"The cabin just sits in back with trees in front. It's relaxing. You can just hear the quiet. I like snow in art," says Tamira.

By their last field trip in April, the Jackson students analyze artwork with sophistication and maturity beyond their years. They linger appreciatively in front of abstract paintings, speaking earnestly about technique and texture and the evocative qualities of color and form.

The Rogue Gallery hopes to expand the pilot program in coming years.

"We hope to fine tune the program to eventually reach as many fifth graders as possible," says Crow.

"This has been a real boost for our fifth graders," says principal Tom Ettel. "What a treat for them. I'm sure they will remember this for the rest of their lives."

Student Jacob Croteau agrees, "I'll always remember that I got to get my picture in an art gallery. Anybody that I know will be able to see that I was here."

"One day I'll come by and see my picture and be proud of it," says Aedan Craner. "I'll remember just having fun and drawing freely. Art is a lot of fun. You're able to express how you like things in a way you can't do with words."

Katherine Hannon is a freelance writer living in Medford. She can be reached at katehannon17@yahoo.com.

Jackson Elementary fifth-grade student Jordan Droescherilo poses with her self portrait during a year-long art education outreach program that culminated with a student exhibition at the Rogue Gallery that runs through May 4. - Jamie Lusch