BOZEMAN — “A squid.” “A banana.” “A scuba diver.”
The students and teacher at Pass Creek School north of Bozeman were looking at an abstract painting by Ted Waddell and describing what they saw.
Allison McGree, who was visiting the school to display the art, listened with an encouraging smile.
“Ted Waddell gives you a lot of room to figure out what he has painted,” she told the class.
Picking up another painting, McGree advised the students that, in that painting, the artist wasn’t “giving us all the information.”
“She gives us some of the information, then asks you to interact with it,” McGree told the students.
Then McGree challenged the students: How would they draw an idea? Or a noise?
“How would you draw a picture of the sound a dog makes when he is snoring?” McGree asked.
The students were stumped.
For three years now, McGree, of Bozeman, has crisscrossed the state in a silver van loaded with art to introduce students to Montana’s painters, sculptors and photographers.
She’s usually on the road for a week at a time, stopping at schools along the Hi-Line or in the Big Hole Valley. In a given school year, she puts 8,000 miles on the Art Mobile.
The program began 11 years ago, McGree said, to show art to Montana students, some of whom might live hundreds of miles from the nearest art museum.
“There are people doing absolutely amazing things in our huge state, we’re just not as
concentrated, so we don’t have the New York art scene,” she said this week. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.”
The nonprofit program, which is funded by charitable trusts and art endowments, has grown in popularity as schools have increasingly found it harder to fund their own art curriculums. Schools pay a $165 fee for an Art Mobile visit.
“The need is great everywhere,” McGree said. “It’s overwhelming how many teachers want help teaching the art curriculum.
“A lot of times, art seems to be one of those areas where teaches are intimidated. They don’t think they’re a great artist or they think they don’t know how to draw. They are so busy with testing and other things they don’t have time to learn how to be an oil painter.”
Recently, when McGree visited Pass Creek school, teacher Sidney Rider attested to that.
“One subject teachers just don’t do is art, because they don’t have time for it anymore,” Rider said. “To have someone professional like Allison enhances (art education) for these kids.”
By way of explaining why art education is important, McGree points to a the findings of three Colombia University researchers published in 2000, which stated the changing world economy demands “thinking creatively, problem-solving, exercising individual responsibility, team work and confidence.”
“Arts education,” the researchers said, “develops these sought-after skills and helps students to compete in the world economy.”
Pass Creek School is a one-room schoolhouse that serves children from kindergarten to eighth-grade in the northern Gallatin Valley. Rider is the students’ only teacher.
But McGree said small schools aren’t her only clientele.
She has also made presentations to students in Bozeman’s Hawthorne School and Helena’s Jefferson Elementary.
“Even in a town like Bozeman, where the Emerson is close or Helena, where the Holter (Museum of Art) is close, it doesn’t mean the students can get to those things,” she said.
The paintings, sculptures and photographs are on loan from the artists and include pieces from Bob DeWeese, Tom Thorton and Maggie Carlson.
“I have to say, they’re funny and cool,” Pass Creek sixth-grader Dustyn Biggs said about the more abstract pieces of art, like the painting in which students could decide if it was of a scuba diver or a squid.
At the time, Dustyn was working on his own piece of Montana art. McGree had just set the students loose on an art project, inviting them to incorporate some of the styles they’d learned about that day. She gave them construction paper and cattle markers, which ranchers usually use to write on cows.
“It is something that is nontraditional,” she said. “Cattle markers show kids to look around creatively. ... They say, ‘We can’t buy those seven-hundred-dollar oil paints, can’t buy a canvas. But maybe, if we grab a newspaper and a cattle marker, what can we do?”
Dustyn took a literal tack with his marker, sketching what he saw outside the window: a field with an irrigation sprinkler and the Bridger Mountains.
Cody Dykstra, 11, said he was giving something new a try.
“I went more abstract,” Cody said of his landscape drawing. “I’m usually more realistic, but today ... we’re using cattle markers, I couldn’t get too detailed.”
McGree said she hopes to show students that people can make a living being artists, but she also hopes the lessons influence kids who chose other paths.
“(I hope) to show somebody who might be an artist, but also maybe teach someone who will be a business person to say, ‘OK, that door just got locked. What else can I do?’”