Local Artist Partnerships Cultivate Community Creativity

By Jan Nadav, Director of Education & Interpretation

For the past several years, the Mizel Museum has integrated the talents and commitment of artists-in-residence into the life of the museum, and the results have been transformative. Over the summer the museum hosts an impressive line-up of renowned teaching artists who work with young people in five-day intensives that combine cultural content with creative learning in theatre, music and the visual arts. Without the typical time constraints of the average classroom, our teaching artists are able to stretch out within these five-day Creative Journeys program, incubating projects, concepts and collaborations that are the seeds for year-round programs and programs that go beyond the museum’s walls.

A great example is a collaboration with Dona Laurita, a mixed-media artist and fine art and documentary photographer. Dona is the creator of “Cassa di Vita” or “Box of Life,” an ongoing project that crafts individual life stories captured in books, audio and film recordings, photographs and paintings to create one-of-a-kind multi-media documentary works of art. Dona’s program works closely with individuals, families, and workshops to create one-of-a-kind ancestral pieces to celebrate life’s passages that draw from both visual and audio material.

Through her fine art documentary work, Dona Laurita has facilitated countless experiential learning programs as an artist-in-residence in schools throughout Colorado. Her workshops weave together photography and other forms of visual art, as well as creative writing and storytelling. She encourages children to begin to “see” what already exists within and around them and facilitates the expression of their impressions, intuition, and imagination through visual, written and auditory media.

“Given the centrality of the narrative metaphor in the museum’s exhibit and approach, we knew she would be a great fit,” says Jan Nadav, director of education and interpretation at the Mizel Museum.

Dona came to the Mizel Museum as a teaching artist for two successful camps. One focused on creating altered books from found objects and another utilized photography, writing and soundscapes to archive childrens’ experiences of their summer. Developing these camps and witnessing the experience of the campers resulted in ideas that later took hold in a grant recently awarded to the museum from Colorado Creative Industries. The project, entitled, “Stories Matter” is an innovative arts education project that will involve fifth grade students from two low-income, highly diverse Denver schools (Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy and Placebridge Academy) in exploring themes of family history, immigration, cultural preservation and community-building. The project will also be piloted in January at Highline Academy.

Through in-class sessions, Dona will guide students in collecting personal and family stories and associated objects found from home. Students will explore multimedia art forms, photography and writing, compiling the results into a high-quality work of art to take home. Then, these “altered books” will be photographed by the students and installed in permanent exhibitions at participating schools. The Mizel Museum will archive these photographs for use in a new travelling exhibit and associated curriculum, which will be launched next fall.

“This collaboration has certainly been generative and is keeping us busy!” said Nadav.

On Dec. 19-23, 2011, Laurita will partner with Betsy Tobin, another teaching artist, puppeteer and performing artist, for the museum’s winter break camp called “Winter Lights, Winter Sparks,” and in February, Nadav is excited to offer the first art workshop for adults based on Laurita’s “Boxes of Life.”

Creativity is not a concept, it’s like any skill: a disposition that one must nurture. With teaching artists like Dona Laurita, the Mizel Museum is able to cultivate in students the ability to both create art that honors one’s uniqueness and to think and explore “out of the box” to open curious minds.”

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