Making the Connections
This is the third of five blog posts in a series about Waterfall Arts, located in Belfast, and are posted April 20-24. Information is provided for the Maine Arts Ed blog readers to learn about community organizations and institutions that provide educational opportunities in the arts. You will learn that they are partnering with other organizations and schools to extend learning opportunities, not supplant.
Waterfall Arts (WA) was founded in 2000 on a rustic site in Montville by a group of local artists. Seventeen years later now located in a repurposed old schoolhouse in Belfast, WA is a vibrant midcoast arts hub with over 6000 visitors per year, still committed to its mission “to create community in harmony with nature through the transformative power of the arts.” WA offers resources to artists and arts enthusiasts of all ages, including classes, exhibitions, events, open media-specific studios (clay, print, and photography), free/sliding scale arts after-school programs for 4th-12th graders, public art projects, long-term studio space, and short-term rental facilities. As the co-founders and those involved are dedicated to an accessible, environmentally-sustainable center, they have embarked on a campaign to transform their old building into a model of creative energy efficiency and ADA-compliance. Waterfall Arts is located at 265 High Street in Belfast. Website: http://waterfallarts.org, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 207.338.2222.
Hi, I’m Bridget Matros, Youth and Families Outreach Coordinator for Waterfall Arts. I help Waterfall share the power of art with people that might not naturally end up in the building, and I love it! When I first came to Belfast, this position didn’t exist. The “hundred-million dollar questions” I asked the first time I met Co-Director Martha Piscuskas were, “what does Waterfall do for local families? Do mostly wealthy people or professional artists come here?” I come from another small town where tourists enjoy what the local kids barely realize is there – so of course I was called to this disconnect, in what soon became my new hometown!
During my time at Boston Children’s Museum, my job was to engage urban families in artmaking. It sounds easy – it wasn’t! I think people in the arts forget how laden with psychological discomfort self-expression is for adults who were “scarred for life” during childhood. The arts also tend to be “bestowed” on communities by privileged people who speak a different language (sometimes literally!) and have a whole different set of values – so people can’t really make a connection in a real, deep way like they do with music from their home country, dancing in their living rooms, or a favorite photo. I developed many strategies for getting people comfortable with the arts on their terms – and one has been at the center of my approach here in Maine – fun! More specifically, free or cheap fun!
Kids learn through play, and it turns out adults do, too (especially with a running narration of the creative processes going on, and their practical applications)! By creating together, adults become advocates for the arts, and seek out more opportunities. We get the most newbies through our doors during “AAAH” events – All Ages Art Happenings. These are interactive community parties ranging from making a mini waterpark in the front yard to sitting down at a giant dinner table for a playdough pot luck.
Our largest annual AAAH is The Glow Show – over 200 visitors enjoy a two-floor interactive installation of illuminated artwork, black light dancing, and glowing art activities. Fun that hinges on creativity is almost always cheap – Cardboard Boxes Are Really Fun involves collecting a couple hundred boxes from local businesses and donations of packing tape! Adults help kids erect an amazing castle-town and leave thinking about how easy it is to get creative at home. They also leave with a brochure of our classes, and some check out the gallery on their way out (a first for most, even with a town that has more art galleries than places to eat). Success! A “next step” might be for a dad to bring his son to one of our free Art Together Mornings, as a first ‘art class’ experience.
I think it’s critical that “outreach” be determined by the needs of the community, not the whims of an organization. For example, kindergarteners are “my people” – but my first mission at Waterfall was to address the fact that in our school district, 6th graders don’t have art in school. I don’t know about you, but that would’ve done me in. So our first program was a free afterschool art club (“Bridge”) for 6th graders – the school bus delivers them to Waterfall for two hours every week. Some of these kids identify as artists on day one. Others, not so much. The goal is for kids to connect to themselves, each other, and the community. We do so through games, journaling, art projects, interviews, public art, gallery visits, and events.
The very first crew not only signed up for every session, but still come to Waterfall every week, three years later; the Teen Art Studio is a drop-in program mostly serving tweens and teens who need a creative outlet, free of assignments and judgement. What I love most about working with this age group is seeing the difference a creative safe-space can make for kids; hearing from teachers and parents things that never came across in Bridge: he’s introverted, she’s on the Autism Spectrum, he’s homeless, she’s learning-disabled, he’s failing his classes – as one student said, “everyone’s got different kinds of smarts. Art is good for finding what you can do and not worry about the rest – you just get to be awesome here!”
My second year with Waterfall, we were contacted by the local elementary school – art classes had been halved due to budgeting. I was able to visit the school with artmaking sessions, making some 200 new friends! We then started an afterschool art program for fourth and fifth graders, which is still going strong. We have a generous scholarship fund so we never have to turn anyone away for any of our fee-based programs.
During the summer, Bridge kids help to staff our “Art Tent” at community events and during the monthly Art Walk downtown. Next summer we’ll equip families with a map to family-friendly galleries along with our guide to looking at art with kids, informed by local gallery owners’ enthusiasm (and trepidations) regarding young visitors.
During a 2014 town hall-type survey of interests among mid-coast artists, teachers, gallerists, and organizations, “connecting to more people” was a unanimous priority – my position was fully funded later that year by the Quimby Foundation. Now a generous collective of sponsors and supporters keep my work going and allow us to assess and address the changing needs in Waldo County. We’re so grateful for the opportunity!
I hope that every reader will support our young creatives by “liking” and following our Facebook page, Bridge:Young Artists Connecting:
This post was written by Bridget Matros, Waterfall Arts Youth and Family Outreach Coordinator and BRIDGE Instructor. Bridget has been an educator for fifteen years, teaching at every level and setting from preschool circle-time, computer labs for the elderly, and seminars for teachers. Her academic and experiential background includes a BA from Oberlin College in Sociology and Psychology, informing her development of successful programs for diverse crowds. She developed and grew the Art Studio exhibit and program at Boston Children’s Museum for ten years and deemed one of 21 “young leaders in arts education” by Harvard scholars, is a published advocate for quality creative development in early childhood education. As an artist she transmits through a range of visual media as well as producing video, singing, and writing. www.bridgetmatros.com. Bridget can be reached at email@example.com.