My Spring with an Art Buddy

My history with crafts is spotty at best. Elementary school art class is a memory mine field for me; mostly I recall coming home with eerily mushed clay bowls, woven paper placemats, and an inability to draw. But for the past six weeks I’ve been spending an hour each Thursday with a third grade boy. I’m a volunteer with a organization called Art Buddies, and we’ve been working on making my third grade friend a costume. Turns out, thirty years later, I don’t mind art class as much as I remember.

Art Buddies Spring 2009 – Images by Chris Bohnhoff

The basic Art Buddies structure is that people from the creative industry sign up and get paired with a third, fourth, or fifth grader at Whittier International Elementary in South Minneapolis. Over the course of six weeks you and your buddy have an assignment to work on – ours was putting together a costume depicting the child as ‘ruler of the world.’ But the emphasis is on hanging out and just being with your buddy, not so much on the end product (although there is a parade during the last meeting and a chance to show off a little bit).

I don’t have kids of my own, and my friends’ kids that I spend time with are generally in the 1-4 year old range, so this has really been my first one-on-one experience with a 9-year-old. And as week one started, and kids and adult buddies were getting paired up, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. My buddy is a back of the line, messing around with the other back of the line boys kind of boy, so I had to wait through almost everyone before he made his way over to my table. And there was very little sign of interest as I introduced myself and our assignment, as the Art Buddies organizers guided us to do. We had been encouraged to bring some kind of tools or examples of the work we do in our creative careers, and I had brought my portfolio, and my tripod, and my camera. I asked if my buddy if he wanted to check those things out. Not really. But he was excited to check out the art supplies.

Art Buddies may kid its volunteers in to thinking that they are a big draw for these kids, but on that first Thursday afternoon I saw the truth: the real draw was free reign over a double-sized classroom chock full of bins and bins of art supplies. Fabric, yarn, all manor of little shiny things, hot glue guns, cardboard. . . the possibilities were staggering. And my buddy (with me trailing behind) spent most of that first hour digging through bins and coming back to our table with armfuls of stuff. He had no idea what his costume was going to be, and he didn’t especially want to talk about it, or about any of the other suggested topics, like what makes a good leader. But processing all the textures, colors, and possibilities was exactly what he wanted to do. So that’s what we did.

I learned a few things over the next five weeks with my buddy.

  • Not all 9 year old boys are driven to make everything they touch in to some kind of weapon.
  • Man, do the kids love them some hot glue guns.
  • I can’t tell you the name of the movie or of the actor, but apparently I look like the bad guy killer in some movie that my buddy watched. . . all I can tell you is that it was in some apartment, and the character he said I looked like got mad and killed the landlord, then I killed my girlfriend, but I didn’t really love her, but then the girl that I really loved ended up killing me. Or something like that.
  • I like 9 year olds. Even when all signs point to complete zoning out or messing around, they’re processing and figuring stuff out. It’s fun to watch that process and be amazed by what they can do.

As the weeks progressed, It did end up seeming like my¬† buddy liked hanging out with me. The evidence? We made each other cards after the parade on week six, and his said, “Thanks for being the best art buddy ever.”

Fun additional note: a reporter from the Star Tribune filed this story from our Art Buddies class – my buddy and I are even quoted (even though they spelled my name wrong)!

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