Founders Blog - Art Works @ School and Beyond

How often did you paint or draw or sculpt as a kid?

I asked myself this question today and I can’t really come up with an answer.

I thought back to my experiences growing up in Prince George’s County attending Catholic school some years and public schools others. The images that flashed in my mind included hand turkeys and cotton ball clouds on blue construction paper.

I got a flash of being in 8th grade and being chosen along with Donna Zanetti to create a paper cut out manger scene for the horizontal band bulletin board above the classroom chalkboard. It was so great – we got out of class time to draw figures of the nativity scene and cut them out and pin them up! We felt special, really special.

I remember a lot of music classes…first the ones with the rather matronly lady and her autoharp where we sang “Cockles and Mussels” (and had no idea what the heck a cockle or a mussel were) and later the really cool classes where the very hippie Mrs. Foster came in with her guitar and her groovy playlist…she taught us “American Pie” and “C’mon People Now” (yes, it was the late sixties/early seventies). They were fun. But I can’t sing.

Still, I don’t remember a lot of art classes.

It started me wondering, “How did I become an artist?”

I think it started when my sister took a drawing class in high school. When she was doing her homework one day and I sat down next to her and began to draw too. She was copying a face from a photograph. So I picked up my teen magazine and drew a picture of my heartthrob Chad Everett!

Family members said, “That looks just like him!”

And I was hooked.

Because my sister was taking an art class and I played along trying to be cool like her, I found my life’s passion. Thanks to her and, of course, Chad Everett.

Even though I have very little memory of my own art classes, her art class changed my life. And while I’m known for hyperbole, I assure you that I am not employing it here.

You see I had found something I was good at and enjoyed doing. I wasn’t athletically gifted, I was okay at math, good at reading and spelling, but there was nowhere in the traditional curriculum where I excelled.

I missed a lot of school. Ask my friend Judy who once relayed one classmate’s sentiments upon hearing I was absent yet again, “How come she never comes to school and gets good grades and I’m here every day and my grades stink?”

My answer is that I was a different kind of kid. I didn’t like school. I loved learning and would read ahead in the textbooks at home. But I didn’t like school. School meant waking up too early, being around kids who teased me because I wore glasses (not the fashion forward accessory then that it is today), and most importantly, not being able to hang out with my 60 year old eccentric grandmother and her hilarious friends all day.

But when art found me, everything changed. In high school I rarely missed a day of school – because I had art class.

The world changed for me. The art teacher recognized my passion and ability and pushed me. She was an excellent teacher and made us work hard in her classes. I took her classes every single year. And when she helped me get a scholarship that paid for my first year of college she paved the way for me to live a meaningful life.

I named the organization I founded Art Works because I know it to be true in my own life and in the lives of many students I’ve had the privilege to know during my  30+ years of teaching.

In a world where the focus is on STEM and not STEAM (STEAM is what happens when you put “ART” in STEM), I worry…

What about that little girl or boy who doesn’t excel at math? Who doesn’t want to be an engineer? Who can’t get excited about cells and physics and the periodic table?

In a world where many school systems, like ours in Prince George’s County, provide only a few art-making experiences throughout an entire school year, I worry.

What reason does that kid have for coming to school if there’s no art class?

Photography by Juliana Molina

Thanks to a great teacher at one of our local schools, in 2012 Art Works began our program At School After School, where we provide weekly art classes for kids at a number of area elementary schools. I hear stories from parents about how their child never misses their art class day. I am lucky to see the beautiful artwork our kids are creating.

Every day I hope that we are able to provide the STEAM some kids need to excel in school, and later, in life.

Barbara Johnson,
Founder and Executive Director
Art Works Now