The middle school students enter the quaint, repurposed downtown shop with a periodic gust of air, burst of color and torrent of words, keyed-up from a long day at school.
They make themselves right at home, helping themselves to chips and salsa, chattering amongst themselves.
A few minutes later, once the snacks are mostly gone, an expectant quiet settles over the room without the teachers having to say anything. The kids were ready to get down to business.
Harnessing the abundant energy of middle schoolers, the Waukesha Community Art Project, 820 N. Grand Ave., works to provide afterschool art experiences for the middle schoolers that also enrich the community.
“It’s a high energy group,” artist Michelle Kobriger said, surveying the room of adolescents, their colorful clothes matching the artwork on the walls.
That energy is put to good use. Visitors to the downtown area may have seen their yarn burst project this summer which featured intricate yarn art decorating mundane downtown fixtures like garbage cans or walk-button poles.
One of the students had learned to finger knit, Kobriger said, and pretty soon, she had taught the others and they were doing it, too. The hand work was soothing and fun, so the group did more. One knitted piece stretched from one end of the room to the other. They had outgrown the storefront with the project, leading them to brainstorm ways they could share the project with others.
“What was great about it was that it was initiated by them. It was their idea that started it,” Kobriger said. With each unit, which last six to eight weeks, the group ties in a way to give back to the community.
The Waukesha Community Art Project began in 2007 in a borrowed room at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. Last summer, the organization moved to its current location on Grand Avenue, a former gift shop, with an exposed brick wall and distinctive front windows.
Executive Director Page Remmers started the project to address a need she saw in the community, a place for middle schoolers to go afterschool, and also to provide art experiences for the adolescents, according to Kobriger, who is also president on the organization’s Board of Directors. The afterschool hours are a prime time for trouble for adolescents, while parents are still at work and the young teens are unsupervised.
It was important to that the program be free.
“With most of our kids, if they had to pay for it, they wouldn’t be here,” Kobriger said simply.
The all-volunteer Waukesha Community Art Project is a 501(c)3 non-profit supported by grants, donations and fundraisers. Two of the group’s supporters are the Waukesha Youth Collaborative and the Rotary Club, in addition to others.
The art experience part of the program is important for Remmers and Kobriger, a jewelry and metal-smith artist.
“We’re both passionate about the transformational power of kids working with their hands,” Kobriger said. For Remmers, a former educator, it was a way to bring together the two areas of interest, education and art.
About 20 middle schoolers attend the afterschool program, in addition high school volunteers, a teacher and sometimes a special guest, depending on the current project. The small store is broken up into different work zones – a big table for group projects or instruction, smaller tables for smaller projects, a small room that used to be a lounge until the group got too big and tables and shelves with art supplies flanking the sides. A few comfy chairs interspersed make the room welcoming for brainstorming or casual chatting.
The sessions, which are held twice a week during the school year, begin with a game, usually something literacy-based to encourage literacy skills, then instruction and work time. The kids naturally break into groups to do their work, depending on what they needed to do. Some worked at tables, others at the computer to research information for their project and some move from area to area.
Just this week the group began planning a wall mural on heroes, with the help of artist Vanessa Andrew, a.k.a. Madam Chino, who worked on a fabric project with the group last winter. Pre-planning for the hero mural included discussions about what makes a hero. The mural will use a number of different art techniques in a patchwork quilt-style application.
For high school student Gavi Klawikowski, volunteering with the program was an easy choice. Klawikowski is an alumna and she knows the importance of the program.
“It’s something for them to do afterschool, keeps them busy and out of trouble,” she said.
Then there’s the social aspect, according to Klawikowski. The kids are making friends and not always the same kids they would normally hang out with, either. It broadens their viewpoint.
This weekend, as part of the Waukesha Reads community-based project, visitors can stop in and paint a mystery message, in keeping with the mystery theme of Sherlock Holmes, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday.
After snacks, instruction and getting down to work, the room is quieter but not silent as the middle schoolers decide how to approach their work. They discuss their heros or the different techniques Andrew told them about, with a reasonable amount of off-topic talk.