by Erin Thursby
Most people in Jacksonville know the Museum of Contemporary Art as a fixture of Downtown, but they don’t realize that MOCA has ties and programs which reach into the community.
One such program is the Rainbow Artists. Currently, the program works with two elementary schools per semester. The children involved have autism spectrum disorders. They fall along a broad orbit, from very high-functioning kids to children who don’t interact as well with others.
First, they visit the classroom and give the kids an idea of what to expect when they come to the museum, while also building interest. They put up a story board, which the children can color and talk about the sights and sounds of Downtown. Once a month, the kids visit MOCA where they take on various art projects.
Using art as a way to educate and improve social skills and communication, the program aims to get these kids to have new experiences and open up their interactions. Art stimulates a different part of the brain and encourages us to break out of our mental boxes.
“They love coming here. You should see their faces when they get off the bus,” says Elizabeth Kerns, Associate Director of Education. Because the kids are prepared for the experience and are excited about it, there aren’t any behavioral problems. They are simply happy to be there and happy to create art.
For those running the program, the end product isn’t as important as what the process of creating brings to the kids. The process gets the kids to tell stories and spark spontaneous conversation. One student, Yhafed, began using full sentences. Other normally solitary students, like Joseph, began engaging others.
On their first trip to MOCA, the students are asked to visit various stations to familiarize them with different art materials.
Elizabeth Kerns explains: “For the most part they haven’t had much exposure past simple things: markers, crayons. We incorporate collage, printmaking. We also put some paint out. And we do have a station with markers and the things they are familiar with.”
The kids have fun with these new materials. Kerns tells the story of a little boy who used a small paint roller to give himself a mustache and a beard. “I love that picture of him, because he’s having such a great time.”
In each class following that, the students have a different objective; they draw a life sized self-portrait or work cooperatively to make a mural. The program does also educate, using some of the Sunshine State standards to infuse lessons about color into the curriculum.
Some of the student’s art will be on display in April as an installation at MOCA during Autism Awareness Month.
When the museum crafted the program, they sought the expertise of Mae Baker, Ph.D. from CARD, the Center for Autism and Related Disorders. She helped them understand what they needed to do to achieve their goals and gave them tools for assessing the levels of the students.
The folks at MOCA also communicate with the educators and parents. Some of the kids love it so much that their parents bring them outside of the Rainbow Artists Program for family day on the weekends.
“We’re handing about 60 students this semester,” says Kerns. “The total program over the year will encompass about 120. There’s a lot of interest in expanding the program. Different schools call me on a regular basis to find out how they can get involved…We could possibly double it, if we had the funding and resources. At this point, we do what we can.”
And what they can do, for the students they can reach, is a lot.