By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Zaria Johnson, a 9-year-old third grader at Adams Elementary School, was having some fun checking out a ceramics exhibit Monday morning at the Quincy Art Center.
Later, she toured a second QAC gallery featuring the selected artworks of area high school students. Then Zaria and her classmates hustled downstairs to the center's professional studio to try their hand at making some art themselves. In this case, the students formed globs of clay into cheerful, decorative wall hangings.
It was all part of the "smART Kids" program, now in its sixth year at the QAC.
"We just love having fun here," Zaria said. "I think this is a great opportunity because our school really doesn't get to do all this stuff" on a regular basis.
"We're really thankful that we get to come here."
The smART Kids program helps fill a void in the Quincy School District's educational curriculum.
According to Julie Nelson, the QAC's executive director, visual arts instruction in grades K-3 was eliminated in 2004 because of state budget cuts. Then in 2007, the QAC launched the smART Kids program to provide some limited art instruction to local students. But because of financial constraints, the program could only be offered at three elementary schools -- Washington, Ellington and Monroe.
In 2008 the Marion Gardner Jackson charitable trust came through with a $25,000 grant that allowed the QAC to expand smART Kids to all seven elementary schools in Quincy. The trust has renewed the grant each year since, and the center gets additional money from other organizations and its own fund-raising ventures to support the program.
As a result, approximately 2,200 students in grades K-3 are now getting a dose of art instruction each year through smART Kids.
Under this program, volunteer art mentors go to each school twice a year to oversee hands-on art projects in each classroom. Then those students are bused to the QAC annually to tour the center's art galleries and complete an art project in the QAC studios.
Nelson said the program benefits many students who might not otherwise get much exposure to the visual arts.
"We've seen them come in and respond positively to artwork," she said. "Their natural curiosity comes out."
Jennifer Teter, the QAC's director of education, said the smART Kids program helps open the eyes of many students to basic art concepts and styles.
Teter said the QAC relies heavily on a dozen volunteer art mentors who help make art come alive for students. The mentorship aspect "is the heart of the program," she said.
Becky Hoskins, a Quincy artist, has been involved for several years as an art mentor. She feels the program helps local youngsters develop a better understanding and appreciation for art. Some have even discovered they are blessed with artistic skills.
"Each kid has their own set of talents," Hoskins said. "Some are good at sports, some are good at music, some might be good at fine arts. But until they've had the opportunity to explore that, they won't know that they're gifted."
Donna Lukens, another art mentor, said she strives to help students realize "they can do anything" when it comes to using their creativity.
"Art isn't perfect," she said. "It's really important that they just try. They don't have to be a fine artist" to get enjoyment out of making art.
Polly Sprick, a third grade teacher at Adams School, said she feels the smART Kids program gives students some "fantastic" exposure to the arts.
"I think it's an awesome experience for the students because otherwise many of them wouldn't have those opportunities," she said.
"I think the Quincy Art Center is helping lots of kids learn about art," said Dayana Garcia, an Adams third-grader.