Look, Kids! It's an Art Mobile!

The Art Mobile program literally brings Pinellas County's prestigious museums to the doorstep of each of its public elementary schools via themed container-size traveling trailers sponsored by the museums.

"Not only do they learn about art, but also about the museums,'' says Sue Castleman, visual arts supervisor for Pinellas County Schools who oversees the program. "We really wanted to highlight the local art institutions in our community, that was a big impetus.'' 

Currently touring are the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art's "Totally Mod'' and Great Explorations' "Express Yourself'' Art Mobiles. Past art mobiles have been sponsored by The Dali Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, both of whom have indicated to Castleman they are interested in doing another round. "They have become very popular -- plus it's a traveling billboard for the museums!'' she chuckles.

Staggered in three- to four-year terms, each sponsoring museum is responsible for creating the theme and installation as well as providing a short educational video to serve as an orientation for the experience. The design of the art mobile is up to the sponsoring museum. Leepa-Rattner was able to outsource the design and build-out to ADM2, a Tampa-based exhibit and design firm, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the Ell Mar Foundation of Tarpon Springs. Great Explorations has the staff qualified to design and construct everything from the video to the set in-house.

Castleman puts together a committee of Pinellas art educators to define curriculum for each art mobile and compiles distinct and comprehensive grade-appropriate lessons, study materials, historical/background information, and art activities into a thick art mobile book.

Then they are ready to roll. And do so, each art mobile visiting the county's 76 elementary schools during their term. That's 40,000 students each.

A Modern Visit

On a recent visit to Belleair Elementary School -- an open-corridor school with interior street signs labeled "Respect Row,'' "Honesty Avenue,'' "Leadership Lan'' and the like -- every child was eager to direct visitors to Leepa-Rattner's "Totally Mod'' Art Mobile. 

The students prepare in advance for their visit and are clearly excited about what amounts to an art UFO landing on their campus.

"Does anyone know what a museum is?'' the soft-spoken art teacher, Michelle Savran, asks her class of kindergartners on their visit to "Totally Mod.'' The homeroom teachers and art classes have already been getting the kids into the mindset of their in-situ museum visit. Hands shoot up. "A place where you see a lot of pretty art!'' answers one little girl. "And you can see beautiful drawings!'' says another. Five of the 17 children say they have been to an art museum before.

The visit kicks off with the Nickelodeon-esque video starring three child actors and a magic paint brush explaining modernism and the artists and works exhibited in this art mobile. The kindergartners are silent during the video and remain focused throughout their 45-minute tour as they learn the basic "isms'' -- figurative and abstract expressionism, realism, fauvism, etc., with the large reproductions by Abraham Rattner and Allen Leepa. Savran has them reflect on the moods, the feelings the paintings evoke, showing them different ways of looking at art.

The pièce de résistance is an original 1961 found-object sculpture by Esther Gentle, a woman's figure formed of welded metals extracted from junkyards. After discussing the medium, Savran instructs the children to think about what they would find if they were looking for objects to make sculptures. This has particular appeal with school-age children who are natural collectors. Enthusiasm abounds as the children "find'' everything for their future masterpieces, from crayons and strings to jetpacks and shoes.

The children are given free passes to the sponsoring museum's home base. "This is one way for us to supplement the lost art education, a pre-visit,'' says Patti Buster, Leepa-Rattner's education coordinator. "Then they can come to the Museum. It is valuable.''

Express Yourself

The "Express Yourself'' Art Mobile, too, follows the philosophy of its patron museum, Great Explorations. "It relates back to the Museum's mission -- to stimulate learning through creativity, play and explorations,'' says the Museum's exhibits manager, Nicole Morelli.  

Great Explorations partners with VSA Florida (Very Special Arts), which promotes arts participation for people with disabilities, in providing several pieces of original artwork including a sculpture created by a blind person as well as mixed-media, photographs, prints and oil works. The opening video reminds children that everyone's brain works differently, a concept is known as "multiple intelligences,'' and encourages kids to think about the different ways they are smart. Morelli says the artworks correspond to the different ways people learn and express themselves. She says, "We want to teach that everybody can create art, everybody is special, everyone learns differently and everyone is different.''

The art mobiles are strictly for Pinellas County's public elementary schools though requests from private schools are common, as everyone interviewed for this article noted. That should come as no surprise -- the power of the sense of wonder and great care this special mobile endeavor brings to a child's elementary experience is inescapable.

For Castleman, it's all in a day's work. "That's my day job, making sure Pinellas County students get a high quality, equitable arts education.'' 

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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