Talent shows: Lawrence Arts Center launches arts institute for young students

Jacob Gillespie, 12, shapes a clay vessel at the Lawrence Arts Center in a Sculpting with Clay class offered through the center's new Arts Institute.

Elise Ruhlman, 13, Lawrence receives instructions from visiting artist Akiko Jackson during a Sculpting with Clay course at the Lawrence Arts Center.

The ceramics studio at the Lawrence Arts Center hums with activity as students whisk their projects about the room, hands muddy with clay. It is the first day of the Sculpting with Clay course in the Arts Institute.

The Arts Institute is the arts center’s new intensive program for middle school and high school students, says Curator of Education Laurie McLane- Higginson.

The structure is different from other summer programs. Students meet every day for one week in three-hour-long classes in either the morning or afternoon.

Courses are offered in various mediums, such as visual arts, digital media, dance and theater. Since the program started this summer, 330 students have enrolled.

Director of Programs and Partnerships Margaret Weisbrod Morris says the Arts Institute is a way to enhance the arts education of public schools.

“It’s offering an opportunity for kids to explore more widely and more in-depth,” Morris says. “It’s for kids who are already interested in art but might want to go deeper into a certain subject or try something totally different without having to worry about a grade.”

Teaming up for an improv class are Graham Edmonds, 11, front, and Calvin DeWitt, 11, at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

McLane-Higginson says faculty member Pat Nemchock had the idea for the Arts Institute after seeing a similar intensive program in New York. After Nemchock pitched the idea to McLane-Higginson and to Executive Director Susan Tate, the program saw its first incarnation this summer, she says.

The Arts Institute courses go beyond learning new mediums but help Arts Institute children learn about creative problem solving.

“It is important to show how the arts are so important to general education,” McLane-Higginson says.

The program’s popularity shows among the enthusiastic students. Eleanor Matheis, 12, says working with clay is relaxing and makes life move more slowly — in a good way. Sullivan Beck, 13, agrees. Beck decided to take Arts Institute courses while on a summer-long vacation in Lawrence.

Elise Ruhlman, 13, and Susan Rockhold, 13, are close friends who decided to enroll in multiple classes together. The girls say the Arts Institute is a great way to make new friends and stay occupied during the long summer break.

“Without the classes we’d just be sitting at home,” Elise says.

“It’s really fun, and the people are nice,” Susan adds. “The instructors have all been exceptional.”

One goal of the Arts Institute was to bring in higher-caliber instructors, McLane-Higginson says. Teachers are required to have MFAs and prior experience, and many are professional artists, she adds.

The ceramics and sculpture teacher is Akiko Jackson, one of the two arts center artists in residence. Jackson teaches adult and youth courses while creating her own body of work as an artist.

Jackson says she needs to be more repetitive and give more explanation while teaching the Arts Institute courses but tries not to treat students like children.

“The kids are little adults,” she says. “I treat them like adults, and I think they appreciate that.”

McLane-Higginson says the Lawrence Art Center is a magical place that you just have to see for yourself. She is blown away by the activity on any given day.

“The kids have such energy,” she says. “They’re creative, they’re interesting and playful. The place just vibrates.”

She stresses that even adults can attend these courses if it is a topic that interests them, and the one-week intensive structure is to their benefit. There are also scholarship opportunities, and anyone can apply at the front desk.

“We want everyone who wants to be here to be here,” McLane-Higginson says.

The Arts Institute will continue in the fall with shorter classes after school.