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By Angelina Bellebuono

For 17 years, students attending Morgan County Crossroads School have painted, sculpted, woven, tie-dyed, spray-painted, and built wooden things in an art class every week, and for the past 13 years, they have created an annual public art inspired by the art and philosophy of Steffen Thomas to be displayed in various settings throughout the community.

Part of the arts educational outreach of the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art and the brain-child of Thomas’ daughter and former Museum Director Lisa Thomas Conner, the program has changed and shifted and grown for almost two decades. In that time, the program gained local and regional recognition and support of donors and grant funding, which enabled the program to consistently provide teachers and supplies so students at Crossroads had access to weekly hands-on art experiences.

The students have made art. Sold art. Displayed art. They’ve visited museums and learned about Steffen Thomas, the artist. They’ve grown as individuals and earned credits towards graduation.

A Program that Works

By all accounts, the STMA Crossroads art program has been a success.

After a summer of discussions among the Steffen Thomas Museum, Madison Artists Guild, Art for Life program staff members, the superintendent of Morgan County Schools, the Crossroads director, and a dedicated team of committed community supporters, the Crossroads art program will continue with the same passion and vision, though it will be operating in its newest incarnation under the guidance of the Madison Artists Guild.

As the program begins its 18th year on Tuesday, August 13, the arts outreach program at Crossroads continues with an exciting new twist, a new vision and a new name. Art for Life: Building Creativity, Community and Connection is an innovative art program that will merge art experiences with social-emotional learning.

Art for Life is a collaborative project created by veteran Crossroads art program instructors and working artists Elizabeth Collins and Chuck Hanes, and Angelina Bellebuono, facilitator of the social/emotional development component. The entirely donor-funded program includes two school sessions per week, field trips and community involvement.

For this year’s public art project, the students will be creating a mural for the Crossroads facility that will complement the recent building renovations.

Crossroads Director Athen Lee is excited about the program and the new collaboration with MAG. He said, “I’m very grateful for the willingness of STMA and MAG to contribute to the lives of our students. The partnership with STMA has allowed our students to access some amazing learning opportunities that would not have been available to them otherwise and for that we are very thankful.  The partnership with MAG will allow the program to continue to focus on not only art opportunities that are relevant to our students, but also important emotional and social skills that are essential for success in today’s society, as well as skills that complement the KASH culture of the Morgan County School System.  We are especially excited to expand the art program to two days each week, allowing our students to learn from some amazing local artists, Chuck and Elizabeth, and an awesome educator and child advocate, Angelina.”

MAG: The Newest Player

Founded in 1985, the Madison Artists Guild has more than 100 members, and as a grassroots organization with diverse, inclusive membership, they boast a myriad of artist types as participants in their juried Main Street gallery and their monthly First Friday events, as well as classes, workshops and community events. Their members are “painters, photographers, graphic artists, illustrators, writers, poets, woodworkers, carvers, jewelry makers, musicians, fabric artists, faux finishers, gardeners, food artisans and folks who love art,” MAG board member Dottie Kurtz said.

But, most exciting, explained Kiki Pollard, also a MAG board member, is the direct connection between MAG’s mission and the Crossroads program.

She said, “Madison Artists Guild is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education and encouragement of artistic endeavor in its members and the community through planned programming and regular gathering.” Pollard explained that in the acquisition of Art for Life from STMA, MAG is directly addressing MAG’s interest in providing arts education in the community.

“We are moving beyond the walls of the gallery,” Pollard said.

Kurtz added, “We are excited that we have the opportunity to assist with this outreach. So many people may not even know that this need is there, and we are happy that through this hand-off, we can help work with these kids at Crossroads while continuing the legacy with such an important, established program within the community.”

According to Pollard and Kurtz, a single, private donor stepped forward to cover the costs of the first semester, so MAG will be able to run the program without interruption.

“We have time to raise funds for the second semester as we build awareness of MAG’s exciting opportunity to make a difference with these students right here in Morgan County,” Pollard said.

STMA: The History and the Future

The program MAG is acquiring from STMA is one born of vision and passion. Lisa Conner explained how the history of the art program at Crossroads has grown to where it is today: “When I began the STMA arts outreach program with Crossroads School in 2002, I noticed that many of the at-risk students who attended the school were creative and some were even artistically talented. I also found that it was almost impossible to find volunteers to help me with this art program that I felt was so important for these particular students.  Gradually I was able to convince a few people to help, which allowed us to expand the program. The addition of Crossroads students working together as a team, under the direction of professional artists, to create public art works as gifts to the community was a high point for me. These installations are a lasting testament to a successful creative teamwork effort by at-risk youth who rarely experience positive attention from the community.  I think seeing the public art works as a result of the STMA program at Crossroads helped convince the community to embrace the program and recognize that it was a successful arts outreach program.”

Like all things, change happens. In the case of STMA, developing their programming to reach additional young artists has become a more relevant focus.

STMA Acting Director Roland Lewan articulated the shift for the museum: “STMA is expanding its college connections to multiple college campuses and opening intern opportunities. We are also finally releasing our Distance Learning program, enabling geographically/economically challenged school systems, art/museum college students/graduate students, home-school students and adults to learn about art and expand their horizons.”

Visionary Collaboration

Because a few dedicated community members who have supported the Crossroads art program for many years saw an opportunity for positive change, two local nonprofit organizations are now well on their way to more directly addressing their respective missions. And, even more importantly, the students will continue to benefit from this instruction and support.

Art for Life: Building Creativity, Community and Connection was created and named prior to the hand-off from STMA to MAG, but perhaps the program’s name is just a hint of what seeds will be planted, what roots will be tended, and what magic will bloom in the years to come.

A legacy for yesterday, today and tomorrow continues. Vision. Passion. Community. That is, truly, art for life.

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