It's mid-morning on a Tuesday and the Faulconer Arts Outreach (FAO) in the Parks program is in full swing. Children from toddlers to pre-teens scamper (or stumble) around the Ahrens Park shelter, buzzing from the fabric tub to paints, dodging around the glittery "Sparkle Truck" and settling there, if only for a minute.
I pick up a toy-kitchen plate and a budding designer at the painting table. Six-year old Caden Christinson is coy at first, but warms up when I have trouble choosing a first color. "How 'bout this?" he suggests, pointing to lime green. Two colors and three stripes later, I ask him for a final idea. He suggests a pattern, and I choose orange dots. A pause, then he adds, "But we're still adding a yellow."
The sparkle truck takes center stage as kids blow fistfuls of glitter over the body. It started out as an ordinary painted truck belonging to Tilly Woodward, curator of academic and community outreach at the Faulconer Gallery. The idea of glittering it was born when she wanted to engage teens in outreach programs in Pella, but the truck became a sparkly tradition mainly because of her daughter. "My daughter [suggested] glittering the truck [so] young women would find [my son] sensitive," Woodward says. Two trucks and 10 years later, the sparkle truck is still a permanent work-in-progress as fresh faces add their ideas to the vehicle.
More than just "a bit of fun," the free, family-oriented program is about community outreach and engaging children to take learning into their own hands. "When you come you have choice," explains Woodward. Part of Woodward's job is to integrate the Faulconer Gallery within the greater off-campus community, and she feels the program fills a cultural summer programming void while encouraging children to take responsibility for their learning.
"They define their project, and then it's our job to listen to what kids want to do," she says. "We teach to their need to know, challenge them to engage in the realm of possibility and look for solutions."
Art may have the potential to be a gateway to education, but this Tuesday it's simply a bit of mid-morning creative mayhem. When I asked the kids about the best part of FAO in the Parks, the answer was pretty unanimous. "Getting messy!" said a girl figuring out how to sew a three-sided pillow. A bus pulls up behind me, and I know it's time to go - until next Tuesday, when the sparkle truck is unleashed once again.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2008