Imagine creating your own forest or rocking a newborn bee in the palm of your hand.
For the past 20 years, Vancouver organization ArtStarts in Schools has been providing unique arts experiences such as these for students from kindergarten to Grade 12 in public and private schools across British Columbia.
The ArtStarts Gallery in downtown Vancouver curates visual representations of its projects, illustrating the exciting work that emerges when students, educators, and professional artists come together to deepen learning, creativity, and community connections. Pictures and sculptures in various mediums are artfully arranged on wall and pedestal. One recent exhibit, “Common Ground”, was a mixed medium event that included drawing, weaving, felting, printmaking, embroidery, and sculpture. From the giant colouring board outside that invites passersby to pick up a coloured felt pen and draw, to the artwork and descriptions inside, the visitor realizes both the beauty of the art object and the impact and potential of its origination. This gallery is the first one in Canada dedicated exclusively to children’s art.
Gallery manager Juliana Bedoya, an emerging artist herself who graduated from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and received the highest distinction conferred for her undergraduate studies, is responsible for gathering the students’ work and creating an engaging exhibit. She explains that ”Common Ground”, exploring the local landscape and its people, animals, and plants, was the amalgamation of different projects from eight schools in B.C. “[All] our exhibitions include projects from across the province and showcase examples of arts integration in action,” she says. The “Buzzscaping” installation, comprised of a video unit resting in a structure made of different plants, is an extraordinary example of how student, artist, and educator come together. Working with local eco-artists Sharon Kallis and Rebecca Graham, Grade 6 and 7 students from Lord Strathcona Elementary School learned to weave and bind nests from day lily leaves, bee balm stalks, and laurel leaves. The video on display caught the magical moment when the students, guided by an expert, experience the mason bees waking up in their hands. “I was so moved by the project that I bought my own mason bees,” Bedoya says. “I wanted to share the experience with my daughter at home.”
On weekends, ArtStarts Gallery offers free workshops for families. One workshop led by Sandi Henrich has everyone painting their own magical coastal forest. A recent event with Cineworks artists Nisha Platzer and Ryder Thomas demonstrates how to create animations by drawing and scratching on 16-millimetre film.
The gallery is only one of the innovative ways in which ArtStarts inspires children and youth to value and engage in art. Each year, its Booking and Touring program organizes over 1,800 performances in schools across the province, arranging everything from contract and scheduling to guaranteeing the professionalism and suitability of material. This benefits both child and artist, making it easy for even the remotest area to engage with top talent. To source out the best performers for young people, once a year ArtStarts invites performing artists from all disciplines—theatre, music, dance, storytelling, interdisciplinary—to apply to perform at the ArtStarts Showcase and Conference. The performers are judged on quality of presentation, artistic excellence, and experience with youth audiences by a selection committee of educators, artists, and administrators. Over the years, ArtStarts’s roster has grown to include 90 performers and ensembles whose disciplines are as diverse as their cultural traditions, and include the Axis Theatre Company; Ballet Victoria; West African musician and dancer Fana Soro; and First Nations company Dancers of Damelahamid. ArtStarts also assists with grants for schools and districts, professional development opportunities for artists and teachers interested in bringing the arts into schools across the province, and residencies.
ArtStarts has been instrumental in demonstrating to both children and adults that creativity is an important aspect of scholarship, and that a good education is not necessarily gained in a traditional setting. We are never too old or too young to see that learning itself can be a work of art.