Kicharria Johnson-Brown likes patterns and designs. Displaying a colorful three-dimensional fish she created with colored markers, paper plates and egg cartons, the 9-year-old considers the pink and purple zig-zag pattern she has drawn on the fins.
“I was thinking about making a rainbow,” she explains to Artist Intern Gretchen Solinger, who is admiring her work.
This is the 15th summer that Artists Working in Education (A.W.E.) has taken its Truck Studio program to 18 parks and playgrounds in city neighborhoods. Four hand-painted vans filled with art materials and a team of four artists offer free art activities for a week at each site. The program operates for six weeks, between June 24 and Aug. 2,on a drop-in basis. No pre-registration is required.
At the Auer Playground, 2221 W. Auer Ave., on a recent Thursday afternoon, children climbing on the playground equipment ran over to the picnic tables and joined in the fish art activity. Some of them dashed back to the swings and monkey bars when their projects were finished.
Rufus King International School art teacher and A.W.E. Lead Artist Tom Haslett said the Auer Playground fish activity began with reading a couple of books (“Fish Eyes” by Lois Ehlert and “My Visit to the Aquarium” by Aliki) talking about different types of fish. He then led a lesson on building a simple fish. “We talked about the fins, gills, eyes and then we let the kids explore and add things as they saw fit, using their creativity,” Haslett said.
“The lead artist is usually a certified art teacher and is often a practicing artist as well,” said Reanna Ottoson, Truck Studio program director. The two pre-professional team members are usually recent college graduates with art education or art therapy degrees or are Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) students or graduates trying to get some professional practice, Ottoson explained. The high school interns, who are MPS students interested in art and working with children, often attract kids in the park because they’re closer to them in age. “They develop some strong relationships during the week with some of the kids on the sites,” Ottoson added.
The artists, which A.W.E. selects to mirror the diversity of the city’s population, Ottoson said, participate in a one-week training program. They spend six weeks working as a team in the neighborhoods.
The lead artists constantly adjust their lessons to make them as meaningful as possible to those present on a given day, Ottoson explained. This is important because A.W.E.’s mission includes reaching children who otherwise “are unengaged, are just walking around the park or don’t have an adult signing them up somewhere or keeping tabs on them,” she said. Though some children are accompanied by a parent, many are not.
Kicharria, her mother Kia Johnson, three sisters and baby brother travelled from their home on 72nd Street to the Auer Playground because a friend who was familiar with the program told Johnson about it. “I thought it would be nice for my kids to come and enjoy it,” Johnson said. “They love art.”