Hitting the Highway to Teach the Arts

A program of the Art Station, VanGo takes art directly to area youths.

You may have seen the colorful VanGo minivan on your travels around Central Oregon. VanGo, a project of Arts Central, brings after-school arts programs to rural and underserved youth in Central Oregon. Along with the art teacher, the van contains supplies for the day’s art lesson.

“VanGo focuses on extending the school day by providing arts learning outside of school,” said Tracy Alexander, the Art Station manager at Arts Central.

This innovative program is possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, support from U.S. Bank, and partnerships with the Jefferson County Kids Club, the MA Lynch Elementary Cub Club in Redmond, and the after-school programs at the Park and Recreation Districts in La Pine and Sisters.

The kids in La Pine are drawing Zentangles, a kind of artistic doodling of repeated patterns. A Zentangle is usually done in black and white, and the patterns have a rhythm. The ideal is to let the creative process flow and allow the design to manifest organically.

“The program is based on the elements and principles of design so it’s not just learning to draw, it’s learning about the vocabulary of line, shape, form, repetition, pattern, balance,” said Alexander, “and then learning how to compose that type of drawing so that it would translate into a print.”

Joe McHaney, the executive director at the Kids Club of Jefferson County said the VanGo program has been extremely valuable for his youth. At a December parents’ night, the club displayed the kids’ artwork created during sessions with the VanGo teacher.

“Our parents were really blown away by what the kids had done with color variation, the different elements of color and design,” McHaney said.

VanGo is a welcome program in Central Oregon because many of the schools don’t have art teachers, and some schools have cut their arts curriculum because of revenue limitations. After-school programs always face funding challenges. VanGo offers arts education to children who otherwise would not be exposed to a curriculum offering diverse art mediums from talented artists.

The 20 part-time VanGo teachers are skilled artists, some of whom specialize in a particular medium, and others who are more general.

Contrary to some who think that during lean financial times K-12 education should only focus on the basics—reading, math, science—research shows that arts education is equally important in producing youth who are capable of critical thinking skills and who are able to identify and solve problems. These are skills that employers seek.

The Conference Board, a national nonprofit that conducts research about management and the marketplace to help businesses strengthen their performance and better serve society, reports from its 2007 survey of 155 school superintendents and 89 employers that, “Overwhelmingly, both the superintendents who educate future workers and the employers who hire them agree that creativity is increasingly important in U.S. workplaces and that arts training—and, to a lesser degree, communications studies—are crucial to developing creativity.”

Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts, an advocacy organization, writes in his blog, “Students with an education rich in the arts have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, lower drop-out rates, and even better attitudes about community service—benefits reaped by students regardless of socioeconomic status. Students with four years of arts or music in high school average 100 points better on their SAT scores than students with one-half year or less.”

Desiree Margo, the principal at MA Lynch Elementary School, which offers the after-school Cub Club program that partners with VanGo, said the VanGo program is extremely important to her school because 90 percent of the families are living in poverty. “We have to meet the holistic needs of children and enrichment is a piece of that—art, music, all different forms.”

With community partners like Arts Central’s VanGo program, Margo said her school is able to provide that enrichment for students who otherwise would not have that opportunity.

More about VanGo

VanGo is a community outreach program that gives students in rural towns, with limited access to professional-level arts education, the ability to build skills in various art disciplines.

VanGo can be used by any community organization, not just afterschool programs. Art education is a useful tool in team building exercises, assisted living programs, community events, or even office parties.

VanGo can bring more than just drawing and painting to your site. Other media include printmaking, sculpture, photography, storytelling, music, movement, Medieval illumination, and even henna design!

To date, VanGo has traveled to 29 sites in four counties reaching over 2,200 underserved children and youth.