Figge starts art outreach program to area schools

Posted Online: March 29, 2009, 9:24 pm
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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 Wednesday, Sept. 17, the 260th day of 2014. There are 105 days left in the year.
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1889 -- 125 years ago: The Rev. R.F. Sweet, rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish, left for the East to visit his boyhood home in Boston before attending the general convention of the Episcopal Church in New York.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Dr. E.A. Anderson was named to succeed Dr. E.L. Kerns as head physician of the Modern Woodmen of America, and moved to Rock Island from Holdingford, Minn.
1939 -- 75 years ago: One week late, because of the outbreak of war, Dr. E.L. Beyer resumed his work as professor of romance languages at Augustana College. Dr. and Mrs. Beyer left Germany on the last train to the Belgian border.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Employees in Turnstyle stores in Moline and Davenport will vote Oct. 2 in an election set up by the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. Employees will vote either for the Retail Clerk International or for no union.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Rock Island High School is considering a step to help teen moms stay in school and get their diploma. The school board is expected to vote tonight on instituting an on-site child care center.

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