On Mondays in the afterschool program at Webster school, superheroes abound. There’s Zoe Dragonbite, a rescuer of dragon eggs (because dragons are in danger of becoming extinct). Mysterious Malaysia has supersight, to see what’s going on and help people be kind to each other and do the right thing. I’ve Got No Money’s superpower is to change all the price tags in the world to zero, “to pay for the stuff that people need to live.”
Each young superhero has a sidekick: an adult volunteer who hangs out with them every week, helping them decide on their mission, imagine the possibilities for their superhero outfit and translate their designs into a costume, complete with shoes and gloves and accessories.
“Our mission is to make the art accessible, to help children feel creative confidence and a connection to themselves and their community,” said Heidi Rich, the executive director of Art Buddies, a nonprofit that for almost 30 years has been connecting elementary school students with mentors.
Their Creative Character program, Rich said, gives the students a chance to build a superhero that’s based on who they are and an issue they care deeply about. “They build that costume and write stories and create comics and sometimes songs and dances and spoken word, and really, really let us know who they are through their creative expression.”
It also gives them a lot of one-on-one time with a caring, creative adult. Each buddy pair gets a booklet that the two work on together, exploring their favorite books, movies, holidays, and heroes. The “big buddy” helps the child flesh out their superhero character and come up with a name. By the time they start making the costume, they know each other well.
Costume-making was an improvisational art, a series of decisions dictated by the materials at hand — bins of fabric scraps, ribbons, shiny paper, strings of beads and feathers, plastic flowers, fake fur. The students headed to the bins and held up materials to show their buddies across the room. Adults and students huddled over glue guns, cut cardboard to which they liberally applied fabric and brightly colored contact paper.
One Monday Keegan was excited to accessorize his octopus costume with strings of pearls that he put in a cardboard oyster box he had made. Across the room, as Hanad cut cardboard for the hat for his anti-racism angel costume, he said to his buddy Grace Enebo, “I almost cut something more valuable than this — I almost cut you,” as she held the cardboard and gave him advice on how to approach cutting a zig-zag pattern.
No swords or other weapons were allowed, but the students fashioned staffs, scepters and wands. A full-length mirror in the classroom allowed the superheroes to check out the progress on their outfits. At the end of each afternoon, everyone gathered in a circle for a show and tell, sharing what they worked on that day.
Watching the mentors and students navigate the costume-building is one of Art Buddies Program Director Mari Marks Mondanelli’s favorite aspects of her job. At first neither the student nor the adult buddy might not know how to approach the task, Mondanelli said. “I tell a lot of the mentors, just let the kid lead the way because neither of you are necessarily going to know how to do it. But’s that’s part of this, figuring out their creative process and realizing they can do it.”
Art Buddies currently has programs in six schools. Mentors range from high school students to retirees and are recruited through social media and at outreach events, Marks said. Rich said they are working hard to get as many mentors as possible from the communities the schools serve. At Webster, more than half of the adult buddies are from St. Anthony East or nearby neighborhoods. Some, like Barret Lee and Danny Sigelman, are established Northeast artists. Some, like Kip Lou, a senior at Minnesota College of Art and Design with a major in comic arts and a minor in education, are college students. They found this a great opportunity to get some informal teaching experience. “This is a chance to see eye-to-eye with kids, a chance to see what their world is like,” Lou said.
Mentor Diana Menard said she’s always wanted to make art with children and jumped at the opportunity when the program came to Webster. Working with young ones goes all the way back to when she was in elementary school and would finish her reading early and get to create puppet shows for kindergarteners. About her buddy Clara, Menard said, “She has a wonderfully wild imagination that I absolutely love. … I wonder who gets more out of it, us or them.” Stacy Malbon, Clara’s mom, who cheered on the superheroes as they paraded through the school on the final day of the program, said Clara “absolutely loves” Monday afternoons, eager to share what she and Diana worked on and talked about.
Although it’s Art Buddies’ first year at Webster School, the organization goes back to 1994, founded as Creatives for Causes in 1994 by Sue Crolick, one of the first woman art directors in the country, who was at the ad agency Carmichael Lynch, Heidi Rich said. Their first project was at St. Joseph’s Home for Children.They first partnered with Whittier School 28 years ago, a program that continues today. Over the years, Art Buddies programs have reached over a dozen different schools and summer programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Rich said.
The program is funded by grants from Carmichael Lynch, which also provides Art Buddies with office space, computers and printing. Other funding comes from the creative agency KNOCK and donations and grants, Rich said. Marks said the materials for costumes comes from all sorts of sources. Some is donated, some she finds on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Interior designers provide fabric samples; a costume designer provides “buckets and buckets” of sparkly fabrics, Marks said.
For more information about the organization, or to volunteer, see ArtBuddies.org.
Webster Elementary student JaiDynn used a glue gun to attach beads to his superhero costume, under the supervision of his Art Buddy Danny Sigelman. Volunteer Kip Lou is on their left. Rose showed the group the progress she made on her gloves and belt after an afternoon of hard creative work. Britany worked on her mermaid superhero costume with help from her Art Buddy Aine Rodriguez. On the last day of the program, the superheroes paraded through the school as staff, parents, and fellow students cheered them on.