Tuesday August 27, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Mollie Burke knew there was a need to offer more art classes to some of Brattleboro's most under-served children back in 2008 when she first started her program, Art in the Neighborhood.

Burke, at the time, taught art at The Grammar School and as a long time resident of Windham County she was aware of the rich and varied classes that children could take outside of school in visual arts, music, dance, clay and other mediums.

So that summer Burke wrangled up some grant money and started an art class that she led during the Clark Canal Summer Lunch program.

Five years later Art in the Neighborhood continues to grow and the latest project, a series of murals painted by children in the program, was recently completed at Ledgewood Heights.

"As an art teacher I was aware of the benefits of participating in visual arts," Burke said. "But there was a whole segment of the population that was not getting the same access to the arts and I wanted to change that."

Burke started her program that first year at Clark/Canal by working with the children in the neighborhood on small projects and the program has grown since then in both size and scope.

Burke said the first year was a complete success and she immediately saw the benefits of running an art program during the summer food service and camp.

At the end of that first summer Burke received a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation and she started a similar after school program in the fall at the Westgate Housing Community in West Brattleboro.

Each of the programs vary slightly, with Burke bringing in other artists who work with the children in a variety of different mediums.

The one constant, Burke stresses, is that all of the classes are tuition free.

She talked to the people at Ledgewood Heights this past year and ran a program there during the summer.

At the beginning of August the children there painted and installed a series of murals.

The murals installed this year are large, colorful and permanent and they follow other similar projects she and her students completed over the past few years at the Brattleboro Transportation Center and at Town Hall.

"Creating these murals is a way for the kids to feel like they are part of the community," she says. "It's a way for these kids to tap into their creativity and to help them see that they can make something that is creative and important."

And she said as the program grows, and the projects get more ambitious and visible, Art in the Neighborhood has become a way for the residents of areas like Ledgewood Heights and Clark/Canal to invite visitors in to see what is going on.

"Creating this art is a way to make connections," she says. "I think it creates neighborhood pride. It's a way to get the communities involved in the projects."

Burke has also extended the offerings by getting some her friends involved who are also artists and the students in Art in the Neighborhood have been exposed to sculpture, clay and fabric arts.

When Burke started the program five years ago she had no idea how the communities would support the work, how she would be able to raise the money year in and year out, or if the students would come out and want to take part.

With the latest series of murals now up at Ledgewood, and plans next year to start a similar program at Moore Court, Burke says there seems to be plenty of opportunities to help children discover the creativity and art that lives in each of them.

"It gives the kids a chance to do amazing work and create something they value," said Burke. "When we complete these projects and I see the enthusiasm among the kids, and the communities, it inspires me to try to keep doing this."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.