'Van Go' brings art experiences to rural Idaho schools

The program offers a day’s worth of fun to kids in a one-room Elmore County school.

kjones@idahostatesman.comOctober 11, 2013 

PRAIRIE — The entire school gathers around Jennifer Williams, who has a surprise for them.

“The entire school” means all 11 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, who go to the one-room schoolhouse in tiny Prairie — an hour’s journey north of Mountain Home on a gravel road.

Williams, an art teacher, brings volunteers to rural schools to spend a day teaching art. She’s been doing this for 37 years and figures she’s been to the Prairie school at least 20 times, each time bringing different volunteers and different art experiences.

“When I heard that Jennifer was going to come, I felt so excited,” says seventh-grader Adrianna Cook during the latest visit on Thursday.

Many of the students looking at her expectantly now are the children and grandchildren of Williams’ first students.

“This is my favorite,” Williams says. “Prairie just has a special place in my heart.”

Although the town of Prairie didn’t burn this summer, the land around the town did. So Williams had the students draw images of “their Prairie,” which she assembled and, with the help of other art teachers, painted as a colorful 4-by-8-foot mural. It stands in three pieces, wrapped and hidden in trash bags.

“This is for you,” says Williams. “You did this.”

ON THE ‘GOGH’

Williams calls her program “Van Go,” with a nod to the artist Vincent Van Gogh as well as the method of transportation. “Most of the time, we get in a van and go,” she says. Now that she’s retired, Williams donates her time, vehicle, gas and art supplies.

“We’ve been all over the state,” Williams says. “There are some little one-room schoolhouses we haven’t been to, but we’ve been to a lot of them.”

Thursday’s volunteers include former students, now art teachers. Others are from the Mentoring Network in Nampa and Caldwell, at-risk students who love art — and who have never been anywhere like Prairie.

“I never knew this existed,” says Maria Zazueta, 14, a ninth-grader from Caldwell High School. “I thought Caldwell was small, but this is tiny. … I really like it here.”

‘MAGICAL’ MESSES

“As a one-room school teacher, there is no way I can provide (Williams’) vast knowledge,” says Prairie teacher Pennie Hufford. “And all the multitude of teachers she brings with her. I might have chalk in my art cabinet, but my ability to give real quality art instruction is less than she can provide, by far.”

Thursday, the visiting teachers take turns leading little workshops. Students draw self-portraits with pastels, or think about movement and translate that to a silkscreen print. Chalk ends up all over their hands.

“Art that makes the biggest mess is the most magical of all,” says Annmarie Caldwell, an art teacher at East Valley Middle School in Nampa.

Williams has students draw their thoughts about peace on fabric that will be part of a statewide peace pole in 2014.

“It feels nice to let your imagination flow,” Adrianna says. “It brings out your own personality, I think. It makes me happy.”

As for the surprise that Williams brought, the kids excitedly tear off the plastic bags. They had no idea their drawings would be transformed into murals, and excitedly they find their images in the landscape.

“This new mural will be standing there when these kids come back to show their own kids where they went to school,” says Williams. “This will always be there.”

“Everybody should learn about art,” says sixth-grader Sam Venable. “Without art — well … Jennifer Williams would be a science teacher and I like art a lot better than science.”

Katherine Jones: 377-6414

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