Art, storytelling comes to life for ARTStart participants

Art, storytelling comes to life for ARTStart participants
Danville-based performance artist Fred Motley brings stories to life using noise makers and other tools during a recent program at Piedmont Arts.

January 30, 2018

A dozen children sat around Fred Motley in a Piedmont Arts gallery recently, following his every move. When he circled his hands over his head and from side to side, they did the same. They tapped their feet and patted their knees as he told the story of “Three Little Pigs.” When he chanted “stor — eeeeey,” they did the same.

This was child’s play, but much, much more. It was Motley using his skills as a professional storyteller to play off the children’s own energies, to share with them stories and games that have endured for generations, and to help the children develop an appreciation for the arts.

It was ARTStart.

Piedmont Arts launched ARTStart: A Preschool Initiative on Sept. 1, 2017 with the help of a $10,000 PUP! (Pick Up the Pace) grant from The Harvest Foundation. The program is designed to increase the awareness and importance of the arts and enhance accessibility to the arts for children up to age 5.

The program works with Martinsville-Henry County area preschoolers and home and center-based child-care providers in the area through Smart Beginnings, a regional early childhood education network. ARTStart also targets children up to age 5 in the Albert Harris Elementary School area of the city and the Sanville community in the county through Smart Beginnings’ Promising Neighborhoods initiative.

Becki Williams Vasquez, education coordinator at Piedmont Arts, said during this grant cycle, she has worked with 98 teachers/providers doing training in process art and creativity. A total of 331 students have attended preschool programming in October, November and January, she said, adding that numbers for other parts of the program are not yet available.

Also, Williams Vasquez estimated that about 40 children attended ARTStart’s first pop-up/drop-in art at Maplewood Apartments in Martinsville. For pop-up art, materials are provided for children to use creatively to create artwork.

According to Piedmont Arts, a preschool curriculum that includes the arts enhances a child’s ability to succeed in kindergarten. Research shows that a child who has been exposed to and is engaged in the arts is more likely to be academically successful, graduate from high school and aspire to attend college.

ARTStart also gives children, families and child-care providers a chance to develop into future artists and create an audience for area arts performances and exhibits.

“We think it is very important to have it here at Piedmont Arts and in the galleries if possible,” Williams Vasquez said. “For some of these preschoolers, it is their first live performance and their first time in an art gallery. Exposure to live performances and art hopefully make them accessible and comfortable. We want them to come back, bring their families, talk about what they saw, and open a dialogue about art and expression.”

Recently, ARTStart brought Motley, of Danville, to Piedmont Arts’ galleries to tell stories to children from First United Methodist Church and Happy Feet early learning centers. Using props, song and action, Motley told them the stories of Amber, whose classmates criticized her pony tails but always copied them until they shaved their heads — and she didn’t; Three Billy Goats Gruff, about three billy goats’ encounters with a threatening, hungry troll; the gingerbread boy, who avoided being eaten by an elderly couple, a cow, a horse and field hands before he was outsmarted by a fox; and others.

Motley was animated, and the youngsters responded. They chanted along with Motley as he pretended to cross the troll’s bridge in the Three Billy Goats Gruff story and repeated key words in the story after him. If their attention waned, Motley drew it back with noise makers and props to illustrate his stories. They counted along with him and were quick to say if they already knew one of his stories.

And that was just fine with Motley. A storyteller for 35 years, he said with preschoolers, he decides which stories to tell based on the energy of the children in front of him. For instance, if they are excited at first, he tries to settle them down and have them focus on him with chants. If he tells a story about a girl, he said he follows it with one about a boy.

He also tells stories and uses games that the children either have heard before or will hear again. That way, when the children share the stories and games at home, their parents or grandparents will know them, or it may prompt a trip to the library to check out a particular storybook, he said.

Nancy Robertson, a lead teacher at the First United Methodist Church Early Learning Center, said programs such as Motley’s broaden the children’s experiences.

“It’s good to have different people tell stories” and use props, she said after Motley’s performance. It also helps the children learn to stay focused, she said, adding that the learning center students also go to story times at the Blue Ridge Regional Library.

ARTStart has two parts, Williams Vasquez said. One is providing materials, such as paint, paper, clothes for costumes and others for youths’ dramatic play, music, and two- and three-dimensional play, she said. The other is action, which includes workshops for child-care providers and teachers, family days and pop-up art.

Williams Vasquez said The Harvest Foundation PUP! grant allows Piedmont Arts to hire professional artists such as Motley for the preschool programs, which usually are attended by 80 to 100 children at a time. Artists enhance the programs that generally include the Zip, Zap, Zop group from Carlisle School, the Martinsville High School Jazz Band and the Sanville Elementary School choir, she said.

“You can read a book, but the performance” of artists and groups, with movement, costume changes and more, engages the children and makes them feel comfortable, Williams Vasquez added.

The PUP! grant also helps Piedmont Arts work with providers through workshops, materials and more, she said.

The recent ARTStart schedule included the two preschool sessions with Motley; a pop-up art session at Maplewood Apartments; sessions with Motley are two area elementary schools; and Family Day at Piedmont Arts.

ARTStart is important to foster an interest in and appreciation for the arts at a young age, Williams Vasquez said. Having older students perform for preschoolers shows they value the arts, and having professional artists present shows there are career possibilities in the arts, she said.

PUP grants, which are capped at $10,000, are designed to encourage collaborative thinking, brainstorming and partnerships, leading to positive change in local neighborhoods and communities, according to the foundation’s website.

“Creative thinking and problem solving begins at a young age, and ARTStart is designed to capitalize on those skills and grow them in preschool-age children,” said Sheryl Agee, impact officer and team leader at The Harvest Foundation. “Cultivating these skills in young children and developing an early appreciation for the arts leads to imaginative adults who become tomorrow’s leaders.”


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