Constance Alexander: Art of outreach is a give-and-take process, highlighted by Side by Side project

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Lily Higgins stacked boxes in a pyramid and iced the surface with scads of glue glitter and pompoms to create “Racetrack Birthday Cake.” Garrison Kelly turned a piece of wood into a graceful mallet and used colored pencils to trim the ridges with a rainbow of blue, purple, yellow and orange.

Jayson Walker’s inventive inclinations were sparked by storytelling, and he created a book called “Spiritual Truth,” with distinct characters, a conflict and a resolution. Mason McCallum’s field trip to Mammoth Cave inspired him to fashion a detailed diorama cleverly titled, “Mammoth Cave Gave Me Cave-ities.”

These are just some of the young artists who participated in Side by Side, an annual project sponsored by the Murray Art Guild, pairing individuals with disabilities and working artists to collaborate and produce unique art. This year’s results are currently on view at Murray State University’s Curris Center Gallery until Thursday, July 27.

Funded by VSA, Very Special Arts, with support from Louisville’s Crusade for Children and the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, Side by Side emphasizes inclusiveness and artistic outreach.

According to Debbie Henry Danielson, Executive Director of the Murray Art Guild, “Each partnership approaches the creative process differently, but the results are truly magical.”

This year, students of Murray State University Professor of Art Education, Rebecca Williams, added a new dimension to Side by Side. They designed four sessions of arts instruction and learned how to write a curriculum that they were subsequently required to teach to the young VSA participants. Music was a common thread for each lesson, with different media and materials introduced in a series of hands-on activities.

The first lesson started with collage. Next came tissue paper. Dance was incorporated into the third workshop, and participants were encouraged to use movement as they painted. In the fourth session, re-purposed VHS tape containers were the basis for dioramas like the one mentioned above, by Mason McCallum.

“Even with the wide range of abilities, the workshops were fantastic,” Rebecca Williams declared. Despite vast differences and skill levels, including some non-verbal participants, everyone worked as a team.

“It was a life changing experience,” Williams said. When she and her students reflected on the experience, one marveled about how much she learned, not just about art but about herself as a potential teacher.

“I learned I am patient,” she told Rebecca Williams.

Experienced artists from various disciplines worked side by side with the fledgling artists. Terry Joe Sledd, a book artist and book binder of considerable skill, admitted that he was nervous his first time coaching a young person with special needs.

Of his work with Jason, Terry said, “I learned a lot. He had a story in his head and his love of drawing helped him tell it. He’s amazing.”

The Side by Side program is designed to offer a creative outlet for participants as it reinforces inclusiveness and positive self-image, and highlights the importance of arts education in the development of all young people.

Images from Side by Side programs across the state are available at Artsonia.com, the world’s largest kid’s art museum.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at Calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit her website.

Read all posts by Constance Alexander on KyForward

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