By Amy Chapman
After 25 years of offering creative enrichment to students in the Bethel area through her Explorations art classes, Arla Patch will be bringing the program to a close at the end of the fall session.
Patch, who holds an MFA in sculpture from Indiana University, moved to the area in 1986 and soon afterward was hired by SAD 44 to teach art in the Creative and Talented program.
“At the time, there was no elementary art teacher in the district,” she said. “I would give the activity to the entire class, and observe the students for their strengths.”
Students who were identified as creatively gifted were given extended opportunities for experiential learning in the visual arts.
When the budget for the gifted program was cut a few years later, Patch couldn’t imagine leaving her students with no options for creative expression.
“I had already established relationships with kids, and there was no way I could just stop,” she said. “I recognized what a lifeline creativity was for kids who might be struggling in other areas. There was this huge part of their nature that really needed nurturing.”
She decided to privatize the program in order to continue offering classes. She rented classroom space, first in the Lions Club building on Main Street, and later at the art room at Crescent Park School, and sought out advisors to help get the Explorations program up and running.
Patch said she wanted to offer scholarships that would enable students whose families couldn’t afford to pay the full cost of the classes to attend.
“I knew I needed an advisory board to help run the program because I had scholarship funding to administer,” she said.
Her first advisors were Wendy Penley and Ron Kendall. Penley has continued to serve in that capacity throughout the Explorations program’s 25-year history.
Over the years, those scholarships gave many children and teens a safe, nurturing outlet for their creativity. For some troubled adolescents, “Explorations was an oasis,” Patch said.
She is grateful to all those who have donated to the scholarship fund, especially to those who have donated annually for many years, like the actress S. Epatha Merkerson, a close friend from college. Merkerson has made a $1000 donation to the Explorations scholarship program each year.
“The message her donation gave to these little kids here in rural Maine was that their creativity was that important, that a famous person would support it,” Patch said.
“Art is the way in”
Patch’s father was a Navy pilot and as a child she lived all over the world. “That global perspective has influenced the way I teach, how I try to give kids an understanding of the larger world,” she said.
Working with small groups—she limits her class sizes to ten—allows her to give each participant individual attention and to really get to know her students.
“Art is the way in, but it’s really a holistic approach, bringing them to their best selves, nurturing the highest possibility of who they can be.”
At the beginning of each session of Explorations, teacher and students discuss and agree on how they will treat each other and themselves. One of the most important agreements is that the studio is “a putdown-free zone.”
“That applies especially to themselves,” Patch said. She helps her students develop an awareness of their “inner critic” and overcome uncertainty about their own talent. She calls fear “one of the most corrosive forces” and works to create a safe environment where her students can explore their creativity freely.
“My students joke about how I make ‘can’t’ a four-letter word,” she said.
She found that one of the biggest challenges of teaching art in the public schools was that the classes usually had to fit into the same short blocks of time allocated to physical education and music classes, often only 35 to 40 minutes.
That’s not enough time for studio work, she said. “My classes are 90 minutes long, and I have no trouble with the attention spans of even first and second graders in a class of that length.”
She has also offered Saturday classes of three hours in duration for older students. “When kids know they’re going to be interrupted [by the end of class time], they don’t go deep. That’s why I get the results I do in my classes—they have the time.”
Her students have won state-wide recognition through the Maine Student Art Program and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Several have gone on to attend art school and have themselves become artists and art educators.
Through Explorations, Patch has been able to form long-lasting relationships with her students, many of whom have returned year after year to the airy studio in her Woodstock home, where she now teaches her classes.
She has also found it gratifying to work with several siblings, or to have parents of her younger students enroll in her adult classes.
“What other teacher gets to teach a whole family?” she said.
Starting a new chapter
With the end of the Explorations program, Patch envisions offering more individual classes and workshops, and doing more work with adults, using art to help them overcome psychological scars or just to explore their creativity.
“Twenty-five years felt like a good time to end the program as I’ve known it,” she said. “I’m interested now in focusing on using art as a tool for healing.”
For the past two and a half years, she has been involved with Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a cross-cultural collaborative which assists the efforts of the Maine-Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Last year, she was hired as the organization’s Community Engagement Coordinator, and she is in the process of applying for a grant that would enable her to use art and healing to work with Wabanaki people.
She has also worked one-on-one with women during two- or three-day solo retreats at Grace Retreat Center, located at her home, and hopes to do more of that work in the future.
This fall’s session of Explorations, which begins the first week of September, will be the last. The final art show, held at Sunday River, will showcase student work from the 2014 spring, summer, and fall classes.
Patch is inviting all of her former students, both children and adults, to attend the show, which is scheduled for November 15.
Registration is now open for the final three sections of instruction in the Explorations program, to be held on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Contact Patch for more information or to register: by phone at 890-0966 or by email at email@example.com.