Former Oak Park Panda Returns as Artist-in-Residence

Artist Chris Vance is working with Oak Park students to create murals for their school.

Artist Chris Vance is working with Oak Park students to create murals for their school.

As an art teacher, Sarah Skidmore has hit the jackpot!

The first year art teacher at Oak Park Elementary came on board just as the school joined a cohort of DMPS schools in the federal Turnaround Arts program. The essence of Turnaround Arts is integration of fine arts into all curricular areas. Research shows that students involved in the arts achieve better across the board.

Now Skidmore is hosting a residency by up-and-coming visual artist Chris Vance, himself an Oak Park, Harding Middle School and North High School (Class of ’94) alum. His highest profile local installation is the three-story design he spray-painted for the east wall of the Metro Waste Authority building in downtown’s East Village.

Assisted by Skidmore’s students, who are only too happy to help, Vance has been commissioned to create six 8’x8’ murals, one for each grade between now and the school’s Fine Arts Night that’s scheduled for May 7th. If all goes as planned the murals will be ready then for installation on the exterior of the Oak Park building.

Vance has been visiting Skidmore’s classroom to get her Oak Park Pandas working on some ideas to help him conceptualize the project.

“When I was here my art teacher was Dell Radcliffe,” Vance said during one of his recent visits to the Oak Park art room. “She saw talent in me and steered me to some classes at the Des Moines Art Center.”

Eventually Vance graduated from Iowa State University and began a career touring the country to show his work in art festivals and galleries. And now he’s taking off.

Skidmore probably feels like she is too.

“Yes, it’s just a great time to be here,” she said, grinning like one of the 2nd graders she and Vance had just turned loose with lots of blank paper, colored pencils and crayons. “The kids are so excited to be involved with everything that’s happening right now.”

Besides Vance, Tony Award-winning actor John Lloyd Young who portrayed Frankie Vali in both stage and film productions of Jersey Boys also visited this week to help with the school’s production of Aladdin which they’ll stage at North High School in April.

Skidmore’s room was alive on Vance’s first visit, February 20th. Mobiles hanging from the ceiling danced in the ventilation like they’d caught the mood. Students gathered around clustered tables topped with tubs full of rulers, glue, crayon stubs and that most indispensable of all implements – erasers! Beneath the creative hubbub electric pencil sharpeners buzzed colored pencils to fine points.

“Do anything you want,” Vance told the kids, “as long as there’s a story behind what you create. I want to know what you’re thinking.”

Ben Heinen is the TA Coordinator for Oak Park and Cattell, another of the TA cohort schools in the North High feeder pattern, and Skidmore’s predecessor as the art teacher there. The building is undergoing a kind of renaissance that’s noticeable as soon as you step inside. Ceiling tiles in the front lobby and hallway have become canvases, decorated with homegrown art. The building’s practically wall-papered with student artwork.

“As part of this cohort, we have been charged with leveraging public and private arts assets as primary pathways for improving school climate, culture, and performance,” Heinen said.  “This opportunity with Mr. Vance is very special considering his rising prominence in the Midwest and national art scene, but also owing to the fact that he is a former Oak Park student.  I am very excited about these paintings that will depict the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and abilities through the framework of artful learning.”

Class by class; grade level by grade level, Vance introduced himself to Skidmore’s students. He showed them his sketchbook, including some sketches done by his son Colton, a 4th grader who goes to school in Bondurant, and described his own creative process. Then he roamed among the pods of Pandas, sitting down to collaborate with each for a few minutes. He and a 2nd grader named Nayeli swapped ideas without ever looking up from their drawings, artist to artist.

The ideas came fast and furious: two-headed bears laying golden eggs; pizza trees; centaur-like creatures that were half beast, half person; people, sort of, with pepperonis for eyes, etc.

The K-5 artist colony on 6th Avenue has a lot on the calendar. Next week is the annual songfest called Northside Night, a collaboration between all of the Turnaround Arts cohort schools. Then in April comes the aforementioned staging of Aladdin. Those events should buy Vance the time he’ll need to blend all of the crazy ideas he’s gathering at Oak Park into the finished products that will be unveiled on Fine Arts Night. That’s when he will put his mark on the place that’s already left its mark on him. With a little help from a few hundred of his Panda pals.

Video of Artist Chris Vance Works with Oak Park Students

Artist Chris Vance Works with Oak Park Students

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