Students at all eight primary schools in the Peninsula School District are getting steamed. 

The school board has partnered with the Peninsula Hands on Art to enhance the STEM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) by bringing instruction in art back to classroom. 

The addition of art in every elementary school is something totally unique for the Peninsula District. It is unofficially being called STEAM. The art portion of the acronym was developed through an arrangement among the district, local artisans and hundreds of dedicated volunteers from the community.

“Our goal is to create a community of young artists that embraces the creative talent inside of each child,” said Gig Harbor jeweler Kit Kuhn, president of Peninsula Hands on Art (PHOA), the non-profit organization that has educated volunteers to provide classroom instruction for the past 13 years. 

Kuhn said every student will now have the opportunity to engage in art history, mixed media to encourage the talent within each child.

“Those of us who grew up with an understanding of the importance of art did not want our children to grow up without exposure to at least a basic knowledge of the historical significance of art and how much it can add to every element of our lives,” said Kuhn. 

The Peninsula Hands on Art program that began at Harbor Heights Elementary a dozen years ago has grown to include every school and each elementary classroom in the district. Last year, 250 trained volunteers provided instruction to more than 3,500 young students. 

Since its inception in 2003, the Peninsula Hands-on Art program has helped create more than 100,000 individual art projects, ranging from the use of pastel paints to illustrate the lifecycle of Northwest salmon to three-dimensional towers decorated with recycled objects and held together with wire donated by Century Link.

Each art project, said Kuhn, comes with a lesson in history and technique as well as insights into the economics of art. For example, towers program was based on the Watts Towers, the work of Simon Rodia. The Watts Towers in southeast Los Angeles were built from discarded tiles and discarded items, but withstood attempts to demolish it with a wrecking ball.

During the 2013-14 school year, elementary students in the Peninsula District used plastic to explore the art of glassblowing while studying creations from Northwest artist Dale Chihuly. The young students created copper necklaces when they explored the delicate sculptures and suspended shapes made famous by American artist Alexander Calder.

The young students in Gig Harbor, said Kuhn, were especially fascinated by the pen and ink lesson that taught them to draw images of fishing boats that sailed the waters of Gig Harbor and Commencement Bay. 

The ultimate goal of the program, according to Kuhn, is to create the next generation of individuals who appreciate art, either as participants or as patrons. 

“We started small because we did not want to overreach our abilities,” said Kuhn. “Art in elementary school allows children to use both sides of their brain at a time they are still open to new concepts and different ideas.”

Perfect candidate

The board has partnered with PHOA by creating a full-time position to run the volunteer-based art instruction. After a lengthy search, the district offered the job to Marla Morgan, the executive director of Peninsula Hands on Art.

“She was really the only person qualified,” Kuhn said with a laugh. Hiring Morgan, he said, relieves the organization of the basic day-to-day coordination of volunteers and administrative duties. Adding Morgan to the district payroll will also allow the non-profit to focus on the actual instruction and boost its ability to raise funds.

“Our organization had outgrown its ability to run on a volunteer basis,” said Kuhn. “The administrative support from the school district was pivotal in keeping it running and reduces the need to constantly raise funds to sustain art education in the district.” 

Morgan said the program could not have survived over the past decade without backing from local artists in Gig Harbor, businesses throughout the peninsula and the generosity individuals in the community. The addition of Purdy Elementary, she said, will increase the number of students the program reaches next year by approximately 600, increasing the number of students in the program to approximately 4,000.

“After school programs are wonderful for kids who have the resources and the opportunity to participate,” said Morgan. “We believe that art should be taught during the regular school day in every classroom. Without exposure to art at an early age, students will may not make the choice to take art as an elective in middle school or high school.”

Peninsula Hands On Art has come full circle, said Kuhn. Some of the first students to go through the program have returned to volunteer time as docents in the classroom. One of those volunteers was his own 22-year-old daughter, Zoe.

Kuhn admitted that he was motivated to develop the hands on art program when Zoe was a fifth grader at Harbor Heights Elementary. Zoe recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in pre-law. She explained that a background in art provided her the tangible tools that can be used in subjects ranging from engineering to geology to advanced mathematics.

“It’s more than just thinking outside the box. It is about utilizing creativity as a problem solving technique,” she explained. Zoe is planning to take a year off before beginning graduate school, but is confident that her knowledge of art will help her in whatever field she enters.

“Art impacts each person differently,” said Zoe. “That is especially true with the minds of curious young people. It is wonderful for the volunteers to see the wide eyes and the look of amazement each kid gets from creating their own masterpiece.” 

Dan Aznoff was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis. He is now a freelance writer living in Mukilteo dedicated to capturing the cherished stories of our lifetime so they can be preserved for future generations. He can be contacted directly at da@dajournalist.com.

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