Walk through the halls of Longfellow Elementary School and you enter a world where art and the outdoors intersect. Four walls throughout the school are testimony to the overall art theme that Longfellow has adopted: A Sense of Place. The individual murals were completed on different years as part of an annual fifth-grade art project tradition in which the students collaborate to leave a substantial artistic creation with the school before they move on to middle school.
One year, the fifth-graders traveled to Yellowstone National Park, and their mural reflects that experience. Another year, they studied native trees of Bozeman and then painted a forest mural with labels identifying familiar foliage. Bozeman fine artist Bruce Park was hired as an artist-in-residence to help guide and pull together the students’ vision for the murals, and the effect is like stepping into the outdoors.
There are amazing watercolors and pastel drawings of animals, swirling snowstorms, and even self-portraits framed and labeled throughout the halls, donated by students to the school’s permanent gallery collection. Outside the school there are self-portraits cast in aluminum and welded together as sculpture, surrounded by a native plant garden sown by students. The list of art projects displayed throughout the school is lengthy, but perhaps the most amazing story behind this nurturing of expression is that there is almost no school funding to help pay for it. In Montana, art teachers are not just an endangered species; at the elementary school level they are extinct. The celebration of the arts and A Sense of Place is a grass-roots effort undertaken by the school’s staff and parents.
“All of this could not happen on its own,” Longfellow Principal Randy Walthall explains. “Basically, there isn’t any “art” money that we receive. What I have to work with is a building budget that covers all the repairs and needs for the year. If that was all we had to rely on, our art program would have about $500 a year for everyone to divide and work with.”
Many area schools do work with that amount of money to cover supplies, which is to say, not much art happens beyond the markers and box of fresh crayons kids bring with them to school at the beginning of the year. “I’ve done more art in a week here than I did all year at my other school,” commented one second-grade boy who recently transferred to Longfellow from another area school.
“About a decade or so ago we began to look at what Hawthorne Elementary School had done to create such a great reputation for being an “arts” school,” says fifth-grade teacher Linda Babcock. “We took some of their ideas and tried to tailor it to Longfellow. What happened was the Artworks council was created, which is a group of parents and faculty who work on ways to fund our art program. The main way we fund our program is through an annual auction of student artwork.”
The increasingly popular auction raises between $10,000-$15,000 dollars a year, on average, and has brought in close to $20,000 in the past. If that sounds unlikely, walk through the Longfellow hallways, and you see work with the freshness of a child, and the professional finishes that are mentored by resident artists the school can now afford to hire. The type of arts the money funds is not narrowly defined, either. Theatre, drumming, writing, and other art forms are also funded by Artworks fundraisers.
Another effect the art auction has on the students is validation. “When those kids see their work sold—see adults getting into bidding wars to own the piece they made—it’s just amazing,” says Babcock.
Babcock, like many teachers at Longfellow, integrates art into all subject areas. Inside her classroom Picasso-like self-portraits line the walls. “We studied geometric designs with that project,” says Babcock. “We also did a math/art combination with our study of tessellations.”
“Her approach is pretty awesome when you consider that kids learn in different ways and many of them need to touch, feel and draw,” says Longfellow parent and artist MaryPat Zitzer. “For instance, in science she’ll take them out to the wetlands or community gardens and have them do sketches in their science journals. Some kids just get bored with traditional methods, and without this integrative approach, you lose those kids left and right.”
“I think art is one of the most important things we teach in part because of the problem-solving that goes on,” says Babcock. “If we’re looking at brainwork, art incorporates both left- and right-brained work at a much deeper level. Emotionally, it’s an expression from inside, a reflection of who they are. They interact with their environment and bring themselves to it.”