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Apprentices explore their creative potential

Kent ISD — There was plenty of friendly banter going on recently in Kat VanHammen’s classroom at Artists Creating Together.

Music played softly in the background, and laughter broke out often as the eight student art apprentices — some of whom have grown up attending Kent ISD adult special education center programs — donned aprons, twisted open jars of acrylic paint and got to work.

“I designed this from my memory,” explained Richard Maya-Vazquez as he showed off a drawing of a muscle man standing beside a muscle car. Those are his preferred subjects, but he shows just as much attention to detail and artistic prowess when painting aquatic lilies.

“Stop, reload your brush; ohhhh that’s magical,” VanHammen told apprentice Logan Sanders as he outlined a tree he had painted in front of a purple sky.

Nearby, Allexis Bickford used a tiny brush to add detail to her painting of multi-tonal pink and purple poinsettias. She stopped to show a visitor a book of her original drawings.

Before the apprenticeship, Allexis said, “I used to be more of a sitting-around person, and now I’m actually a sit-down-and-draw person.” Since she started her apprenticeship in the fall, her goal is “to draw pictures and paintings and put them in museums and shows,” she said.

A Year of Living Artistically

The one-year apprenticeship program is one of a handful of visual and performing arts programs Kent ISD offers, in collaboration with Artists Creating Together, for young adult students with special needs.

Every year, 10 apprentice spots are made available to students at Kent ISD’s community transition sites. 

A transition program in Grandville Public Schools has its own apprenticeship program with ACT. The two groups will interact with a joint show and art sale on April 21 at Lions & Rabbits gallery.

“It’s not about who has the most beautiful, sophisticated art, but about having some passion and interest in visual art,” said ACT Executive Director Angela Steele. “We want students who are able to take some initiative to work independently.”

The apprenticeship counts as a workplace placement, Steele said, in that they are learning to supplement their income through art sales, which open online this year on April 18.

During the year, apprentices spend two hours a week exploring multiple artistic genres and mediums as they work under a trained, professional artist, then create a body of artwork to show in the community. 

In addition to the experiential learning, they also get lessons in arts administration as they learn what goes into planning an art show, how to write an artist’s statement and how to set prices for their work. Plus, they get professional development by attending artist’s talks and learning to discuss their own pieces.

Most of all, said Steele, “They cheer each other on and challenge each other to do better and more.”

Teaching artist Kat VanHammen is in her fifth year leading the apprenticeships.

“The idea is to view our students as budding artists that we are developing,” she said. “How that development varies year to year depends on students’ cognitive abilities. Besides skill-building, we do a lot of slideshow presentations, art history, and I give them a lot of opportunities to try different media. 

“At the same time, I’m really trying to cultivate their creativity and develop their self-expression — to ask them ‘What do you have to say?’ I’m so proud of what they do. It’s just incredible to see how much growth they’ve had.”

Logan, for example, who is mostly non-verbal, took “a big leap forward” recently, VanHammen said: “He usually does a drawing and then will paint over it. This time, he really painted his drawing. I think part of it is the sense of community; he is seeing the other students feeding off each other. We’re celebrating one another’s work.

“I honestly get super-excited about every little step they take.”

Allan Milton, left, works on a robot sculpture while fellow apprentice Nathan Rowan makes his acrylic painting ‘pop’
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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