It's a busy Saturday morning at the Creamery Arts Center in Jordan Valley Park, home to the Springfield Regional Arts Council and numerous local arts organizations. On this particular morning Springfield Ballet is hosting a cast party for their Nutcracker production; a science seminar for kids is taking place upstairs. And in the Creamery's Exhibition Hall, numerous youngsters ages 3 and up are gathering with parents, grandparents, foster parents and adult guardians for the Arts Council's holiday edition of "Free Art Day." Enthusiastically presiding over it all is the Arts Council's Director of Programs and Exhibitions, Stephanie Cramer.
"I think its a really great way to give back to the community," she says. "So we just want to bring joy, and hopefully success and happiness, and families together laughing and doing something kind of fun."
Free Art Day used to take place quarterly--when adequate funding was still available. But now they've cut back to just two Free Art Days per year: the "Snow Fest" in June or July, and this December event, purposely scheduled on the day of the Springfield Downtown Christmas Parade every year, according to Stephanie Cramer. "We used to have funding from various sources, but now that funding has gone to people who are much more in need. We used to get $1,000 a year--then we could really buy some nice things. (For example,) we bought birdhouses and then they they could paint birdhouses and take them home." But one of their former Free Art Day funders has reconsidered their charitable giving--currently they require recipients to be "homeless or pregnant--and we are neither of those things! So we have to do it on our own. Now we have to use a lot of recycled things, and we're also just using up art supplies that we've had, and just trying to make the most of our budget."
Among the projects for the December Free Art Day, Stephanie mentions "gift bags"--basically small white paper bags that the kids can paint on using a new art supply, "these beautiful tempera sticks that dry quite quickly. And they're going to make gift bags for their parents. We're also doing 'gingerbread' ceramic pieces and they're going to paint on those. We're going to be painting cookies. We have two different types of plastic-bulb ornaments--one in which they're going to add water and glitter, and one where they're going to be adding ribbon. And then also we're going to be making some gift-wrapping paper." All the materials are supplied free of charge by the Springfield Regional Arts Council.
Free Art Day typically draws from 50 to 200 kids and adults, and many have been coming for years--in fact, some have even become volunteers working with the younger kids. Libby Pendleton's son Jack has been attending Free Art Day since he was three--he's twelve now (just turned 12 last week, in fact, as this program airs on Christmas Day). He tells me he comes back every year because he enjoys "all the cool art projects, and they get interesting supplies. The have lots of neat stuff." And now Jack's three-year-old sister is attending her first Free Art Day to carry on the family tradition. Mom Libby Pendleton recalls that Jack got involved when he began taking the Arts Council's Mini-Monet art classes for small children at age three. "And it just kind of escalated from that," she says. "We have an 'art table' in our living room, and everything gets displayed." Obviously the number of display items is going to continue to increase.
While Free Art Day caters mostly to individual children and families, this year the folks at Great Circle Behavioral Health, a local agency formed in 2009 by the merger of Boys and Girls Town of Missouri and Edgewood Children's Center, brought four kids under their care to Free Art Day. Accompanying them was Courtney Cunningham, who told me the children she brought range in age from five to nine. Asked what she hoped she--and they--would accomplish at Free Art Day, Courtney said, "I was hoping they would have fun and get to make some Christmas stuff, have the Christmas spirit and do a little bit of traditional things, since they're not necessarily in the same position as everyone else is. I work at the Emergency Shelter for these kids, so a lot of kids that are in State's care and custody come in, and we take care of them while the caseworkers are finding a placement for them. We do have some other programs, residential facilities and therapy programs, and homeless teenage programs."
As we talked, one of the kids handed Courtney a gift bag he had just decorated. "You made me a bag--thank you! What are we gonna put in it? Let's keep it and put something in it here in a little bit, all right?" I asked Courtney if she was actively helping the kids with their crafts, or just standing back and letting it all happen. "Oh, if they need my help I will help them." But she was more interested in participating directly: "I'm going to make some stuff along with them, though. I'm very excited to do that--I love crafts! We just got here, so we're going to move from one station to another, all together."
I also met eight-year-old Katie Askren and her dad Larry. Like most of these kids, Katie was three years old when she first started attending Free Art Day. Asked why she returns every year, she simply said, "They have a lot of different arts and crafts, and it's just fun." Larry Askren added, "We still have some ornaments we hang on our tree every year--we made them here. So it's nice to have the homemade ornaments that you can replace once in a while after they get tattered!"
Arts Council Programs and Exhibitions Director Stephanie Cramer looks forward eagerly to each Free Art Day. "That's what it's all about--it's looking at the eyes of that child who sees that color, and you recognize that they're enjoying it. And their parents recognize it. And it can really be a wonderful thing."