A garden grows in Kidspace at Mass MoCA

NORTH ADAMS — It may be fall, but there's a garden growing at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

It's got teal hearts and golden bees, unicorns, hashtags, stick figures and wild trees, all ideas germinating from the seeds of thought by local fourth-graders, nurtured by the staff and artists of the museum's Kidspace.

This week wraps up a two-week program of school visits on site where kids get to work with current artist-in-residence, Wes Sam-Bruce of Colorado. Each day, a fourth-grade class comes to visit and is able to work on painting or writing poetry to hang in a series of triangular wooden fort-like structures set up in a studio space. The artist's only directive to the students has been to think of a garden, and to paint what they might like to see in it.

Sam-Bruce calls it "participating in the act of connecting with the moment."

On Thursday at 5 p.m., he'll share more about his process in a talk for grown-ups in museum's Club B-10.

"I try to say no as little as possible," he said. Instead, he talks to the youths about their ideas, intentions and choices.

For example, he asks "Would you find an emoji in the garden?" With this gentle challenge, he then stands back and waits for a child to channel their response through their hand and the paint and the brush.

Mass MoCA Director of Education and Curator of Kidspace Laura Thompson said that some of the structures will join the Sam-Bruce installation "Cavernous: The Inner Life of Courage" in Kidspace, while others will be stored and debuted at a family day in the spring. Ultimately, she hopes to find homes for the garden-inspired forts in places in the community, like school yards and neighborhood gathering places.

"Cavernous" is the third component of Kidspace's federally funded Art 4 Change initiative, a four-year project that explores problem-solving through empathy, optimism, and courage. The guiding principle for the installations and works created under this umbrella is Albert Einstein's statement that "[We] cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

Thompson said the program strives to succeed with support of the artist-in-residence program, which "takes the artist off the pedestal" and puts them on the floor with local students and helping to educate them side-by-side with classroom teachers.

And while Kidspace offers free admission for young people, there's a sign that invites everyone to enter and explore, from the latest installation to the do-it-yourself ArtBar.

"Our goal is to show that everybody is a creative being," Thompson said.

This approach seems to stimulate both the individual and collective curiosity. Colegrove Park Elementary School teacher Lisa Tanner and her students spent the day with Sam-Bruce and museum associates on Friday, immersed in conversation and hands-on art-making.

"This particular class is really creative," said Tanner, noting that in her group's rare pockets of downtime, the common request is to draw or paint or to create something.

Sam-Bruce invited students to go spelunking through his exhibit, which is inspired by the architecture and history of the construction of North Adams' Hoosac Tunnel, an obstacle of engineering and example of grit and triumph. The artist invites students to embrace the pathos of the exhibit and prompts them with queries about courage.

When he asks the young students whether they've experienced a hard thing in life, the response, he observed, was "very adamant head-nodding yes."

"As adults we want to make life fun, exciting and joyful for them, but we take for granted that their lives are the same as ours, that they have a lot of things going on too," Sam-Bruce said.

Anecdotally, his conversations with fourth-graders have encompassed everything from giggle fits to experiencing the deaths of loved ones.

Makayla Bushika told this reporter, "when I was little, people told me my handwriting was bad, super sloppy," as she churned out short poems and mantras on paper in colorful cursive hues of marker to hang on strings of yarn in one fort.

"But now I know I'm pretty good at cursive, my handwriting's awesome and it doesn't matter what they say," she said, as she finished penning in purple, "Never give up, always believe."

On the other side of the room, a group of boys formed their own art club and theme song to match. Another boy showed off a wooden sculpture he made earlier in the day, with a working spinning color wheel comprised of the initials of his loved ones painted in the strokes of the colors that they love. In another interpretation of the same project, Keira Martin constructed a nighttime scene with a silver spinning "wishing moon." She politely let the inquiring reporter make a wish, which, due to the nature of wishing, will not be disclosed.

Another student, Autum Jennings said the visit made her feel "like an artist." "I think this makes us feel proud of us because we can do what we want," she said.

Sam-Bruce said that's among the highest compliments, for students to feel trusted and validated in their thinking and sharing of experiences.

"I strive to make a space where kids feel they're really seen and known ... and there's an expression of how we belong to each other," he said.


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