By Juli Goetz Morser
For Vashon Center for the Arts
For a semi-rural island, Vashon is well known for its vibrant arts community. It has been said that the island’s natural beauty and way of life attract creative-minded people to its shores. But for more than three decades now, Vashon Artists in Schools (VAIS) has been actively cultivating another population — that of creative-minded children.
Islanders Candy Gamble and Pam McMahan were early architects of VAIS, a partnership between Vashon Allied Arts, now Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA), and the Vashon Island School District (VSD), that they helped launch in 1988.
“We wanted to bring what we considered some of the best features of our community, our professional artists with their energy and commitment, into the schools,” McMahan said.
Fast-forward to Wednesday, December 4, when VAIS Program Manager Kaycie Alanis and VISD awarded 23 art residencies pairing 18 teaching artists with 38 classroom teachers for the 2019-20 school year.
“VAIS is unique in VCA’s programs. We bring art to the students where they are, and the quality of artists is phenomenal,” said Alanis, who began as program manager in 2015. “I have heard teachers say they are in this district because of VAIS.”
Third-grade teacher Marjorie Butcher would agree. She taught in the Seattle Public Schools before moving to Vashon five years ago.
“When I heard about this program I was astounded,” she said. “I know of nothing like this in Seattle.”
With their curriculum in mind, teachers choose an artist from VAIS’s roster before submitting an application. This year, the artist-teacher collaborative projects will reach 82% of students at Chautauqua Elementary School, McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School.
Actor Martha Enson has worked with VAIS at all three schools since 1990 and is a staunch believer in giving back as an artist.
“I feel it is my job to share what I have been taught with the students on Vashon. I have been blessed to work with such fabulous classroom teachers and with such amazing students,” she said. “I consider this work a great gift and encourage all-island artists to jump in and play. It’s very rewarding.”
Island photographer Ray Pfortner has taught at McMurray and the high school and has witnessed the creative power of art to transform lives through the program.
“Students meet real practicing artists and work side by side, with enough time to really get their hands dirty,” he said. “Art enhances academia enormously. For some students, art is the way, the only way. For many, it is a way to enhance their projects … a relief from routine, a creative outlet, a chance to express, share, influence and change. For some, it is the voice they have been seeking.”
In the classroom, Butcher observes that “students connect to the curriculum in a whole new way when it is integrated with art. There are some who don’t connect unless it is through art.”
The price tag this year for teaching art and cultivating creativity totals $43,311, with $38,360 paid to island artists and $4,951 for materials. But that’s not all. VAIS funds other projects not reflected in those costs.
Alanis works diligently to generate these other opportunities. Last October, she organized ArtBlitz — 24 workshops from all art disciplines — for Vashon High School after a successful run at Chautauqua and McMurray last spring. For the second consecutive year, VAIS has given a scholarship to an island teaching artist to attend the seven-month Teaching Artist Training Lab, a program of the Washington State Arts Commission. Last spring, Alanis brought Seattle based HeARTWork Collective to McMurray for an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) workshop. HeARTWork will return in January for workshops at Chautauqua and Vashon High School, focusing on Cultivating Equity in the Classroom. And over midwinter break, free artist mentorship workshops will be offered to classroom teachers, who will receive clock-hour credit toward certification.
According to Enson, the value of VAIS to our community is priceless, and it runs deep.
“The arts are vital to a healthy society,” she said. “They are the expression of our beliefs, our dreams, our hopes and our questions.”