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Volunteers helping keep art alive in classrooms

July 12, 2012

Liz McAteer and her art docents celebrate at the end of this school year’s fine arts enrichment program: (front row, l-r) Maryann Thomas, Patty Holton, Gillian Carunchio, Terry McAteer, (middle row, l-r) Marilyn Philip, Marlene Dietrich, Denise Tetrick, Raquel Dietrich, Heidi Dougherty, Sara Steck, Lynn Lamb, Lynn Cooper, Ilissa Twomey, Liz McAteer, (back row, l-r) Pamela Jones, Mary Matlick, Lo Lyness, Phyllis Mattola and Cheyenne Stone. Photo by Jeanne McAteer

When Inyo County Art Docent Program volunteers arrive in elementary school classrooms, the students expect to have fun, but they also receive a supplemental fine arts education through what program organizer Liz McAteer called a “museum experience in the classroom.”
Even if children are shy or academically-challenged, it makes no difference during art docent visits, said McAteer, also the school arts coordinator with Inyo Council for the Arts. “Art is the great equalizer,” she said.
Being a docent “isn’t a huge time commitment” and the reward is in seeing children’s “faces light up when they see what they’ve created,” she added.
McAteer was an art docent in her own children’s Grass Valley classrooms but the program wasn’t here when she moved to Inyo County, she said. “I am so happy that ICA is able to bring this to the schools,” referring to the support of ICA Executive Director Lynn Cooper.
During the 2011-12 school year, the Art Docent Program served classes in Round Valley, Bishop, Big Pine, Independence and Lone Pine, explained McAteer. Docents made six one-hour visits during which they presented artworks by Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, O’Keefe, Dali, da Vinci, Kahlo and other masters, pointing out basic art techniques and biographical tidbits. Then it’s on to a simple, fun art activity.
This past school year, McAteer’s husband, Inyo County Office of Education Superintendent Terry McAteer, was an art docent and a docent team leader. Team leaders provide support and explain art project ideas so docents can comfortably present artwork and facilitate art projects, he explained.
Art docent Sara Steck, said, “You don’t have to be an expert to impart art concepts and techniques.” Docent Cheyenne Stone added, “It’s a vacation for the kids” in their school day and it’s “an insightful time. You learn about art as you prep.”
“This program wouldn’t work without volunteer docents,” said Liz McAteer. To be an art docent, one simply needs to enjoy being around kids and have an interest in giving them “a museum experience in the classroom.” This is many children’s “first experience seeing these art works,” which they “share with their families” and take “out into the world,” said McAteer.
2011-2012 art docents gathered May 31 for a year-end luncheon to share their experiences. The consensus? The program enriches students, teachers and docents alike, heightening awareness of fine arts, fostering creative self-expression and building self-esteem while making connections between art and other curriculum, explained McAteer.
Art docent Phyllis Mattola said, “It’s so important to have art in the schools and it’s the first thing to get cut.” It’s a shame because they are so creative, Mattola explained. “They all have the same assignment (but) their individuality shines through … These art protegees” are surprisingly perceptive.
ICOE Assistant Superintendent Pamela Jones shared a never-a-dull-moment art docent experience. While studying the painting, “Girl with a Cat” by Cecilia Beaux, her first-graders, as one, began “rocking from right to left.” Why? “‘The eyes are following us,’” was their reply, said Jones.
Docent Raquel Dietrich shared a bittersweet anecdote. “The water works started” during a foil figurine sculpture activity when many of the kindergartners discovered they had mistakenly crushed their foil into balls. Quick on her feet, Dietrich told them each, “You should show your parents that ball; it’s a really nice ball.” The waterworks turned into smiles. Docent Elmy Hopper added, “They need to have some chaos sometimes.”
Armed with sidewalk chalk, docent Terry McAteer and his kindergartners went outside and drew a parade of their families. “There must have been 150 people” by the time Terry’s troupe of artists finished. “It was a very urban concept.”
As a docent, Liz McAteer encourages her kids to really look at paintings. “What’s going on there? Why do you say that?” She reiterates their responses and a thought-provoking dialogue always ensues, said McAteer.
Docent Marlene Dietrich’s Owens Valley Elementary School classes in Independence created villages in which they wished to live or which they had seen. Docent Lynn Lamb explained that projects for older kids can easily be modified for younger ones. “It’s your art, your interpretation; there’s no wrong.” She added, “I was able to use art I used as a kid,” like origami.
Docent Maryann Thomas led a “verbally creative” project wherein kids created sentences with words drawn from four bags then put “their work on the overhead” and discussed it with their peers. They felt empowered, she said. Art is an important part of a child’s education, giving them “another area in which they can excel (and) develop as a well-rounded person.” Thirty-year professional artist Thomas said, “There are still careers in art today, if you are dedicated.” This “excellent program” allows children to discover their artistic potential.
Docent Lo Lyness said, “It’s fun when the kids see artwork they know a little bit about and shout out things like, ‘It was his blue period,’” referring to Picasso, and “‘Yeah, he had a friend who died then.’ They bring in little bits of things they’ve heard on TV or seen in a museum.”
Artist and educator Patty Holton pointed out one of the biggest rewards of being a docent. On her last visit of the year, “they all came up and gave me a huge group hug.”
Anyone interested in being a volunteer art docent should call McAteer at (760) 873-8014, Tuesdays through Thursdays. She will recruit in August and especially encourages male applicants in order to get a more equitable gender balance among the docents.

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