The Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa’s Artists-in-the-Schools program brings local dancers, storytellers, musicians, painters and more to area schools to offer unique lessons. Meet four of the artists who share their talents with local students.
Arthur Thompson’s djembe, an African hand drum that he named “Africa,” is one of the many drums he plays to teach students about music and rhythm.
On her office wall, Kay Goss has hung one of her most treasured pieces of artwork.
It is an original from a Grimes Elementary School first-grader named Ethan.
“It’s the best boot I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Goss, community outreach manager for the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa.
Even better is the child’s handwritten message, which simply says, “I liked their boots.”
The young artist was inspired by a group of performing cowboys who visited his school as part of the Artists-in-the-Schools program. Their boots and spurs left quite an impression.
“You never know what is going to pop in their mind or what will inspire them and stick with them for the rest of their lives,” Goss says.
Now in its 46th year, the Artists-in-the-Schools program is administered by the Arts & Humanities Council, which maintains a pool of about 100 artists who are available to dance, tell stories, play music and paint. Seven local public school districts, plus a few private schools, have contracts to pay the Arts & Humanities Council for participating. The program serves prekindergarten through 12th-grade students.
Teachers simply select the artists and schedule a time.
“I’m so glad to see the teachers using it because it’s such a curricular enhancement,” Goss says. “In no way do we want to take a teacher’s place. We just want to bring art into the classroom and provide inspiration.”
Many of the participants are Title I schools, which means they have a high percentage of students from low-income families. Some have art and music teachers on staff; others do not, Goss says.
Besides inspiring students, the program serves the secondary purpose of helping local artists earn a living.
“That is a point that really interests older students,” Goss says. “They realize, ‘Hey, I can really make a living doing this.’”
Arthur Thompson says he wishes a program like Artists-in-the-Schools had been available when he was a child. Now 47, he says he was a hyperactive child who struggled to concentrate in school.
“Back then, they didn’t medicate us,” Thompson says. “I tease my friends that they would’ve had us on all kinds of medications now. A program like this would have given me an interest in other classes. When you blend two classes, it makes them both more interesting.”
His Artists-in-the-Schools project is a perfect example. Thompson believes that all children have talents, and that those talents should be cultivated early in life. That’s why he has brought drumming into schools and created a curriculum called “Math & Music,” which teaches addition, subtraction, multiplication and division using rhythms and musical scales.
He also drums with professional musicians. He toured with jazz musician Wayman Tisdale and recently played percussion on Toby Keith’s Grammy-nominated “Cryin’ for Me,” a tribute to Tisdale, who died of cancer in 2009. Currently, he tours with jazz saxophonist Tom Braxton.
His latest passion is the djembe (pronounced JIM-bay), an African hand drum.
He enjoys teaching African, Afro-Cuban and Latin rhythms in schools. He incorporates both traditional rhythms and those he has composed.
Typically, he brings 25 to 60 drums with him to school and “the kids play with me the whole time,” Thompson says.
“It gives them the opportunity to do something different,” he adds, “to work their muscles, to express creativity, to improve hand-eye coordination but most of all, to have fun.”
Thompson’s own interest in music started early, when he played drums at Northside Church of God in Christ and later at God Kist Acres Community Church, where his father formerly was the pastor.
He realizes that not all children have the opportunity to develop their talents. In addition to his work in the schools, he has also dedicated himself to working with at-risk children during summer camps and working with groups of children whose parents are incarcerated.
“I try to use my drums as an instrument for positive change,” Thompson says.
Mary Jane Porter
Mary Jane Porter is waging a war against lollipop trees and trees drawn like puffy clouds on sticks.
When she goes into classrooms, the artist and art teacher encourages children to color big, realistic trees using their hands as measuring devices.
She shows them how their own fingers are wider at the bottom than the top and how their arms are bigger closer to their body and narrower toward their wrists, just like a tree’s trunk is wider at the bottom and narrower as it reaches skyward.
Porter encourages them to put three fingers together to determine the width of the trunk, then teaches them to make two large branches. They keep making branches until they reach either the side or top of the paper.
Next, she invites them to look out the window at how long, skinny branches overlap.
“Some kids are afraid to let things overlap,” Porter says. “And they’re afraid to let their drawings cover the whole page. They have a fear of drawing big.”
And at the end of the branches are little twigs that stick out at various angles like fishing poles but never parallel like railroad tracks.
“We make the tree grow as we color it,” she says.
Once the tree has been colored, Porter helps the children manipulate construction paper by rolling, folding and making it stick out into a three-dimensional collage. When the construction paper meets the tree, a wonderful tree house is born.
“It teaches architectural forms and three-dimensional concepts in a very easy way,” Porter says. “And it starts a great conversation. I’ll ask who has a tree house story, who fell out of one, who spent the night in one or who helped build one.
“The children love to tell their stories, and I love to hear them because they’re getting even more involved in their art.”
Besides teaching elementary-age children, Porter teaches printmaking at Booker T. Washington High School. And she stays busy teaching courses for educators as a professor at Tulsa Community College and in her own studio, which currently is her dining room table.
Her specialty is mixed media, which she describes as combining printmaking, drawing, painting and collage into the same piece.
Puppets are her other love. Porter discovered them while teaching a class for teachers at Northeastern State University. She says she always helped the teachers make a puppet they could take back to their classrooms to be used for a curriculum or just enjoyed as art.
“Finally, I realized that puppets were my calling,” Porter says, “and that I wanted to start making them instead of just teaching other people to make them.”
Porter’s puppets are available at Mama Trizza’s, 1448 S. Delaware Ave. She will teach a puppet making for adults course at the TCC Southeast Campus Feb. 18 and 25.
WILL ROGERS GROWING UP
Vance Morrow has been telling stories and singing folk songs in schools since the 1960s.
Last year, he decided to retire from a career in electrical engineering, and he had to look no further than his grandmother for inspiration.
“She had two pictures in her bedroom,” Morrow says. “One was the old home farm. The other was Will Rogers. He was the type of man she would have liked to have known. For her, he was an ideal guy. Most Oklahomans felt that way.”
So Morrow began researching Oklahoma’s favorite cowboy and humorist. Finally, he settled on telling stories about a time that usually goes untold in Rogers’ history: his childhood.
“We think everything big happened on the East or West Coast,” Morrow says. “But Will Rogers grew up learning regular things like being hospitable, working hard and growing up to do the things he loved. And it’s just like the kids in the classes. They can reach their dreams, too.”
The 71-year-old Morrow, now retired, finds many parallels between Rogers’ childhood and his own.
Like Morrow, Rogers’ favorite summertime activity was jumping in a creek with his friends. Also like Morrow, Rogers used to enjoy “riding trees,” a slang phrase that means one boy pulls over an entire small tree, another boy climbs on and then the first boy lets go.
“You had to be careful because if it was too big a tree, you’d end up on the other side of the creek,” Morrow says.
He also shares with students all the work that went into having fun on the prairie. Fishing, for instance, meant finding a sapling to serve as the pole, then heating and bending a large saddle-repair needle in a fire to make a hook. The bobber was a small stick, Morrow says.
“In this day and time, it’s hard for the kids to understand how different the old days were,” Morrow says. “But Will Rogers did things that kids would do today if they only had the chance.”
Morrow explains to students that Rogers and school didn’t get along too well. He was always getting in trouble and ended up attending six Cherokee boarding schools.
Part of the reason, Morrow says, was that Rogers didn’t like living away from his family. The other reason was his playful nature.
“He had more of an interest in playing pranks and jokes,” Morrow says. “But he never hurt anybody and he was never mean. He never put anybody down.”
Morrow loves to tell stories to children of all ages, he says. Elementary students have no inhibitions, so they ask great questions. High-schoolers, though, have more knowledge of history, so they appreciate the lessons more.
“Storytelling gives me a chance to look people in the eye and see if the story is taking hold or if it’s not,” Morrow says. “Then I can change it up on the spot. Or I can go home and make some modifications.”
SEUSS ON THE LOOSE
There’s no doubt Angie Kuehn is famous.
Once, in a Dallas airport, she saw two boys staring at her. She said to her husband, “I’d bet anything I’ve told them stories.”
When she introduced herself, sure enough, the boys knew her as the lady who stands on her head — her trademark maneuver when she’s sharing “Pierre” by Maurice Sendak.
“The highlight of being famous is going to McDonald’s and seeing little ones’ eyes light up when they recognize me,” Kuehn says.
Kuehn tells stories, from folk tales to edge-of-your-seat thrillers. But what she’s best known for is a series called “Seuss on the Loose,” in which students are actively engaged in helping Kuehn tell the story.
Kuehn’s interest in storytelling began when she was fresh out of college in the 1970s and began working as a fifth-grade teacher. Her main problem was getting kids interested in reading, so she started reading to them. Then she started acting out the stories. Before long, she had found her calling, not as a teacher but as a storyteller.
And she has a primary goal.
“My main goal is that they will want to read,” Kuehn says.
For older students, she wants them to shed the I’m-too-cool attitude and just have fun.
“I feel like all my programs are ageless and gradeless,” Kuehn says. “I don’t think kids should ever outgrow those stories.”
Kuehn has told each of her stories hundreds of times — so many times, in fact, that she has been diagnosed with nodules on her vocal chords. Her doctor advised her to either change careers or start using a microphone. For a diehard storyteller, the choice was clear: Kuehn now wears a microphone for amplification.
Even groups of 150 to 200 in a gymnasium are “very workable,” Kuehn says.
She fills the room with a crescendo of pops with the Dr. Seuss story “Gertrude McFuzz” as a bird named Gertrude, unhappy with her one plain feather, grows a spectacularly fancy tail. With more than a hundred elementary students making popping noises to simulate feathers popping out, sometimes Kuehn worries that she has gone too far and will never get the audience calmed down.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, no, am I going to get them back?’” Kuehn says. “But I always do. Most of the time, they’re mesmerized.”
And if you’re wondering whether adults can enjoy the show, one teacher says, “Absolutely.”
“It’s fun for teachers because retelling a story and reading with expression are objectives for second-graders,” says Kathy Senger, a second-grade teacher who recently scheduled a Kuehn performance at Jenks West Elementary School. “Those are grades on their report card. So this program really ties in with what we’re teaching in the classroom.”