April 13, 2011 — Concepts like "sense of place" and photography as an art form were the focus of this spring's "Early Visions" program, a University of Virginia Art Museum program that pairs U.Va. student mentors with Boys & Girls Club members.
"Early Visions" has partnered with the Boys & Girls Club for more than three years in activities that promote critical thinking centered around art while building relationships. The participants range in age from 6 to 12.
About a dozen U.Va. student mentors and an equal number of Boys & Girls Club participants engaged in a variety of activities over six hour-long sessions. They began by exploring how contemporary photographers approached images of architecture, landscape and people in the museum's "Southern Views/Southern Photographers" exhibit.
"Framing the activities with an exhibit helps the mentors focus the dialogue that develops between the Boys & Girls Club participants and their U.Va. buddies," said Kris Iden, the tour coordinator in the museum's education department.
U.Va. student mentors prepared for the program by attending docent training sessions, led by Iden and associate academic curator Aimee Hunt, which were tailored to help them talk to the youngsters about the art work. They also learned to how to generate discussion and develop critical thinking in their interactions.
The U.Va. students also participated in diversity training, led by Rianna Anderson from University Community Action for Racial Equality, or UCARE, which helps the University and Charlottesville communities understand and remedy the University's legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination.
For one of the weekly sessions, the youngsters and their mentors toured the Grounds with a University Guide who talked with them about the contributions of enslaved laborers to the construction of the University. Student representatives from the committee for a Memorial for Enslaved Laborers talked about design competition entries for the proposed memorial and visited the site of the current memorial placard near the Rotunda
The students mentors guided the "Early Visions" youngsters as they painted their own site-specific art on Beta Bridge employing ideas about memorials from notes they kept in journals throughout the sessions. They were asked to paint what community meant to them.
For a photography project, the youngsters were given small 35mm film cameras and were able to choose between black-and-white or color film. Armed with the 36-exposure cameras, they hosted their U.Va. mentors on their turf – the Boys & Girls Club. Asked to capture a sense of place, they took photos of friends, their surroundings and their new U.Va. "buddies."
Waiting until the film was developed to see what they had captured was a new experience for young people accustomed to the instant gratification of digital photos.
At the last meeting, the Boys & Girls Club participants and their mentors exchanged photos. When Iden asked them if they wanted the negatives, too, they were curious as to why. When she told them they could take them to a film store and get additional prints, they were eager to have the negatives.
"Working with film cameras was unusual and interesting for this generation," Iden said.
The participants will receive a folder containing a letter they wrote to their U.Va. buddy, a letter the U.Va. buddy wrote to them, and a photo of the duo.
"The most important result of the program is the relationship that develops between the young students and their U.Va. mentors," Iden said.
Olga Arouca, unit director of the Southwood Boys & Girls Club, agreed. "This program is so valuable because it exposes our kids to opportunities such as seeing artwork in the museum, that they don't often have, and to do things they don't often get to do. The mentoring is the biggest and best part for the kids because of the one-on-one attention that many of our kids are not getting enough of. And they get to know U.Va. students on a personal level and begin to identify with them."
For the mentors, it's a special community service opportunity and a chance to build town-gown relationships.
" 'Early Visions' enables students at the University to connect with the Charlottesville community in a manner other than retail consumption on the Downtown Mall," said Melissa Heide, a first-year College of Arts & Sciences student who anticipates majoring in English with an art history minor. "We get to know the community and the children in it on a personal level of involvement. It's a great program."