Figge starts art outreach program to area schools

Posted Online: March 29, 2009, 9:24 pm
Comment on this story | Print this story | Email this story
By Jonathan Turner,
It's after 4 p.m., but the Rock Island Intermediate Academy students are glued to everything Molly Vadnais is saying.

The perky art teacher is showing the predominantly African-American group of 3rd- to 6th-graders a wildly colorful painting by Jacob Lawrence, a black artist who won acclaim before the civil rights movement.

"Jacob actually had to go to foster care until he was 13 years old, when he was reunited with his mother," Ms. Vadnais says. "She put him in art classes. He became really famous."

She discusses other influential artists who overcame enormous obstacles to pursue their calling -- Vincent Van Gogh, who was in an insane asylum after suffering a mental breakdown; Frida Kahlo, who had polio and survived a crippling bus accident; and Chuck Close, a quadriplegic who painted with his mouth and became a great photographer.

Ms. Vadnais is not on staff at the Rock Island school because the district doesn't offer formal art classes at the elementary level. She is the founder and instructor for the Figge Art Museum's "The Big Picture" outreach program, which brings art to K-12 schools throughout the Quad-Cities.

"It's reassuring to students that have hard lives," Ms. Vadnais said after the recent presentation at the Intermediate Academy's "Lights On for Learning" enrichment class. Of the often misfit artists, she notes, "These people made it through, and that's very impactful to the students.

"I hope this program shows kids there is no limit to what they can do," she said. It also helps students who are more "visual learners" to understand history, social studies, language and other subjects.

Since it began in September 2008, The Big Picture has served 4,200 students.An assortment of 10 classes have been taught in eight school districts and incorporate a variety of programs for educators.

In addition to visual art, presentations teach students concepts in math, science, social studies, foreign language and language arts. The Figge offers these classes free of charge to teachers, thanks to generous private support, says Dan McNeil, Figge development director.

"We haven't found other museums that do outreach programs that teach across the curriculum like this," he said. "We're sneaking art through the back door. We know art instruction is becoming less in the classroom."

"Molly has created a very dynamic program," Mr. McNeil said.

"She was very engaging, interacting well with the students," said Judy Hipskind, site coordinator for Lights On for Learning, which has 60 students and meets four days a week.

"Anytime you want to reach students, you have to approach them with something they're going to find interesting," says Ms. Vadnais, who incorporated references to Kanye West and Brad Pitt, and a quiz with prizes into her Rock Island class.

This program was "Judging Identity" -- which teaches the importance of first impressions by learning the personality and characteristics of artists. Students learn information about the artists to reinforce the power of impression and the "danger of snap judgments."

"We are very thrilled with the program," said Debbie Patronagio, a 4th grade teacher at Jordan Catholic in Rock Island. She has had Ms. Vadnais teach about the Middle Ages technique of manuscript illumination, and the famous Iowa artists Grant Wood and John Bloom.

In both the Intermediate Academy and Jordan's cases, the classes also visit the art museum to see artworks up close.

The Big Picture "gives them a greater idea when they go to an art museum, what they're actually seeing," Ms. Patronagio said.

"This is a fantastic program," she said. "This will definitely be something we'll want to do next year."

The program -- which also includes classes on art during the Holocaust, and the art and science of Leonardo da Vinci –--also provides lesson plans and other materials for teachers.

If your school is interested in registering, contact Heather Aaronson at (563) 326-7804, or


Local events heading

  Today is Saturday, April 19, the 109th day of 2014. There are 256 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: Miss McCorkindale has opened millinery rooms over Gimbel's dry goods store, where she offers a choice lot of millinery goods, which she will manufacture to order.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The little South Park Presbyterian chapel celebrated it first Easter decorated with flowers for an afternoon worship service attended by a large congregation.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The Wennerberg Chorus of Augustana College has returned from a 2,000-mile tour in the Eastern states and Illinois.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Col. Charles Lindbergh has stated that he is convinced that Germany's air force is equal to the combined sky fleets of her potential European foes.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Small gas motors may be permitted on boats in the lake to be built in Loud Thunder Forest Preserve. The prospect was discussed yesterday at a meeting of the Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The annual Dispatch/Rock Island Argus Spelling Bee continues to be a family tradition. Ed Lee, an eighth-grader at John Deere Junior High School, Moline, is the 1989 spelling bee champion from among 49 top spellers in Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties. He advances to the competition in Washington, D.C. Runnerup was Ed's sister, Susan.

(More History)