Category Archives: Summer Camp

Doing Something: Reflections on Year 1 of SECCA Summer Art Camp

I’ve been busy in North Carolina.

Now, I moved for all the right reasons – love, a need for a life, a quieter pace. While I do have that, and a healthy work life balance, I’m still working a lot. I haven’t been vocal on the company page, EE Twitter or my personal Facebook (happily deleted) – it’s been absolute bliss following my little EE heart, experimenting with the things I couldn’t afford to experiment with in NYC. This makes for a busy schedule with ideas that get the follow through they deserve.

The Outdoor Gang goes on an adventure

The Outdoor Gang goes on an adventure

This summer I had the pleasure of co-teaching and co-creating an Art through Improv Camp with the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Full disclosure – I got to do all of this with my husband, Alex, who is the Programs Coordinator at SECCA, so it was pretty awesome right there. But it was the first time in a long time that I got to create a public museum program with improv where it wasn’t my job to focus on the art-making and gallery component. Improv was an equal component as a way ‘in’ to the exhibition. For the first time in my little museum educator turned improv educator turned business owner and educator heart, I got to run with ideas.

The entire week was one success after another. I think it can best be described from the difference on the first day and last day: SECCA’s awesome Executive Director Gordon Peterson came down on the first day to say hi to the campers, and they looked at him like…well like he was a fancy guy in a suit. These kids were QUIET. And SHY. SILENT might be the best word. They basically uncomfortably stared at him until he stopped talking and left.

I think at this moment Alex got nervous that we (I) were (WAS) crazy.

We started in the gallery with Keith Haring and created our very own Pop Shop Prints, which were available to the public. In the afternoon, we focused on repetition within improv, to echo our repetition within printmaking.

Zip Zap Zop was like pulling teeth.

Gallery Talks

Gallery Talks

Slow, scared, and just a general ‘nope’ attitude. But slowly, I saw the kids taking little risks, even on that first afternoon. Being a bit louder onstage. Slowly taking the lead and initiative in scene work. By the end of the day, we played Hot Spot – and a few kids balked at it. For those of you who haven’t experienced my ‘way’ of playing – one person stands in the center of a circle and starts singing a song. When the people on the outside of the circle know the song, they start to sing along, backing that center person up. The moment someone on the outer circle thinks of a new song in relation to the song that’s currently being sung, they tap the center person, take their place and start the new song. Up to this point – that’s how Hot Spot is traditionally played. It’s a pretty standard improv game. You don’t want someone to ‘die’ in the center; you always want everyone to look out for each other.

I make everyone go.

The kids take the stage!

The kids take the stage!

Yep, everyone has to sing. And you can’t get out of it – because as I tell students, kids and adults, I will wait. Before people start thinking that I’m some kind of crazy horrible person that makes people sing in public spaces in front of strangers for fun, here’s the thing: chances are, singing in public in front of strangers with no backup music to hide in will most likely be the scariest thing most people do that week. Sometimes even that month. I’ve heard people say it was the scariest thing they do all year. People fear public speaking more than death – singing? Forget it.

But think about it – you do this and the world DOESN’T end. You don’t die. You get nervous, people have your back because they are also scared shitless and you all win. And the kids behaved JUST like adults do – fear, trepidation, nerves. Kids saying, “Not doing it.” Me saying, “Too bad, do it.” And as usual, they nailed it, went home and I collapsed, exhausted but believing in this crazy idea that improv really does magic.

Fast-forward to the next day when the kids asked to do more improv than art, and ASKED to play Hot Spot again. I asked the girl – the same one who had the most trepidation around the game – why she wanted to play it today. And she said, “I was scared yesterday, but I did it and it was fun and worth being scared. I learned a lot.” (Kid, please remember this in life and tell it to all of our clients and potential clients.)

Indoor Art-making Fun

Indoor Art-making Fun

Fast-forward to the third day of camp when they asked to do improv first, before art. Improv at 9 am is not for the faint of heart, but this crew nailed a group scene with 9 people onstage at once, all sharing the focus and on the same page, with a scene that gave me goose bumps because it was so fluid, so focused and so good – this after practicing sharing focus in relation to composition within art.

Fast-forward to the fourth day, where they decided they wanted their parents to play improv games in the final culmination. Also, we were working on wrapping up some art projects in the afternoon, and Gordon’s wife Nancy came by to see camp. Since we were doing art, I asked a few students if they wanted to do a quick improv game to show Nancy what they’ve been working on. Three girls jumped up, killed it and walked off like no big deal. Shyness around random adults? Gone.

Fast-forward to the last day when they led their parents through the galleries, showed them their favorite art, taught them printmaking, and performed a 30 minute improv show better than 75% of my ex-improv team performances, complete with a parent segment. Afterwards, the parents that were onstage said they had a new respect for thinking on the fly (YES AND) and to what their kids did so seamlessly (YES AND). Oh and the first day awkward visit from SECCA’s Director? Gordon came back on the last day, and the kids were completely comfortable around him, grabbing snacks and walking around like they owned the place. Casually saying hi like it was nothing at all. Same shy, silent, scared kids + 5 days of improv.

That progression from a group of nervous kids to an ensemble who exhibited more comfort and confidence in a contemporary art museum than I’ve seen in a lot of adults – that’s why I do what I do. EE came out of me noticing that museum professionals, specifically educators, didn’t follow the visitor enough. Agendas surpassed interest – whether those agendas were museum orientated or personal or both – and I’ve seen too many programs that were curator-lite, focused more on academics and content regardless of the audience. And that’s lazy museum education behavior.

Non-stop glamourBut this program – we planned, but were ready to be flexible. Maybe it was because I co-taught with my husband, who has seen the incredible power of improv and focusing on your audience instead of going through the motions, but we were open, ready and able to follow the group. They wanted to do improv first, great, done. They wanted to take the structural elements of sculpture and architecture we taught them and make a sword out of paper, awesome. They’ve always wanted to paint a tornado in a field? Great, here’s a canvas and you’re still using color theory, which you didn’t know before, so paint whatever you’d like. That openness by US allowed them to be completely free.

As long as this post is at this point, the entire week can be summed up by one conversation with a boy named Oliver. He was pretty quiet, strong instincts onstage, and liked art. One of the first things he said on the first day during art making was “You mean we can make whatever we want?” and when Alex and I said, “Yes, of course!” (Initiative! Choice! Improv LIFE principles in disguise!) he replied with the widest eyes and literally rushed back to his seat to create TONS, and I mean TONS of prints. He played with ghost prints, multiples, layers of ink – all of the techniques we had talked about. There wasn’t a wrong, or a failure – he just got to explore. He went on to say it was nice to not just recreate someone else’s work – and while I’m sure my NYC friends/readers are commenting “Oh it’s because his art class isn’t like [insert snark here about NYC].” Guess what? He goes to literally THE most progressive and advanced school I’ve ever set foot in. It’s an incredible school and he STILL felt like he didn’t have the freedom to create something that was truly his. So there’s that.

Oliver – you’re doing EXACTLY what I’m doing here in Winston. I’m creating something that is truly mine. I’m doing fantastic collaborations – real creations of new projects, not just partnering or pushing my own agenda. I’m taking the community around me and teaming up with some awesome and incredible people and MAKING THINGS HAPPEN. Remember this article I wrote almost a year ago?

I’m doing something.

Peace out and Yes, And loves-
Jen