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Bringing art to life at the New Orleans JCC

Just off the main entrance of the New Orleans Jewish Community Center on St. Charles Avenue, the expansive walls of the Board Room are adorned with brightly colored art. The display, a product of the two-week art immersion unit for the nursery school, is the product of years of development by nursery school teacher Chris Gogreve, who blends art, history and cultural studies to engage and inspire children to formulate their own individual styles.

In an age when many curriculums are forced to drop arts programs at an alarming rate, the nursery program at the NOJCC embraces it.

“I love talking about artists,” explains Gogreve. “For me, it is part of learning to have something cultural like music and art. The children have a music teacher here but not an art teacher, so we do it. We talk about what the artists did, and why they did it.”

Over the two-week period, one artist is featured each day. Artists such as Chagall, Warhol, Pollock, O’Keeffe, Matisse and more are studied through story-telling, hands-on activities, visual posters and finally, an art project (or two) in their style. The teachers employ the use of non-traditional tools to create a similar effect with tools that can be managed by the nursery age group.

“I find the creative use of materials interesting and fun,” says Gogreve. “When we start the art unit, we begin by posing the question, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have a paint brush?’”

During the unit, the students read about the artists and they talk about both the artist as a person and the time period from which he or she came. Although each art medium is different, the unifying requirement is that each style had never been done before and was not popular or renowned during the artist's time.

Typically, the children work in small groups and the day progresses with some students coming and going for different enrichment programs, music and gym. All of these activities are connected to the artist, reinforcing the theme of the day with song and diverse activities so that even though every child learns differently, there are countless opportunities for reinforcement to help each individual connect.

The nursery program is open to ages 1 to 5, but the majority of the children are in the 4- and 5-year-old range. At that age, the end result is impressive. Using creativity to imitate the style helps with the dexterity required to complete the projects. The children use broccoli florets to paint the sky of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and imitate Pollack by flinging paint warrior-style from trenches outside with tools fashioned from the creation of rubber-band brushes (10 rubber bands split in half and tied to a paint brush).

The main emphasis, says Gogreve, is individualism.

“Each artist is chosen because they were not well received during their time. You are going to have people in life tell you that you can’t draw or you can’t do this. You have to look within yourself and feel good about it; that is all that matters. Van Gogh, no one wanted his art and now you can’t afford to buy one. People laughed at them and thought they were silly.”

She uses this message to inspire the children to be their own unique person and embrace their talents. She also inspires them to think autonomously, asking: What do you think about this?

Long after the art program wraps, the children still sing the songs, visibly using the inspiration of movement and new mediums in their own creations.

Each year, Gogreve says, “I think, wow …t hey’ve really taken in what we’ve talked about.”

For more information about the early childhood program at the New Orleans JCC, visit www.nojcc.org.03. Tours are given every Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. from October 8 through May 6 with the exception of holiday observance closures.

Chelsea Lee is managing editor at NolaVie. Email comments to her at [email protected]