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Creative network wants to put art back into local education

Display of students' work inspires area businesses to help
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Sabin School third-grader Nasir Overton practices his figure drawing during art class last week. Art, music and drama have become a luxury rather than a staple at most Portland schools.

Twenty third-graders sat last week with sketchpads in their laps, staring at a headless, one-armed mannequin wearing nothing but black spandex stretched across an athletic physique.

"Do I have to draw the six-pack," one student said, in awe of the old Nike mannequin's abdominals.

"Can I draw a shirt?" another student piped up.

"Draw what you see," their teacher, Chris Lamp, answered simply.

So they did, drawing and erasing and creating new lines, smudging their pencils to create light and dark areas, and struggling with the reality that their sketch wouldn't look perfect on their first try: "Mine looks like an apple!" "I'm not good at this!"

Lamp, the art teacher at Northeast Portland's Sabin School for the past 10 years, tells them not to worry -- they're learning more than they realize.

"It's the right-brain, left-brain thing," he says to a visitor. "They do have to transfer their thought process -- it's a hard transition. They're learning listening skills, vocabulary."

Not to mention hands-on creative learning, early design concepts, trips to the Portland Art Museum, Shakespeare Festival workshops and other cultural opportunities that aren't found elsewhere in the school day.

Sabin students are an anomaly in today's public school system, however. A majority of elementary schools in Portland do not have any arts, drama or music, having fallen victim to rounds of budget cuts.

A Portland nonprofit group called the Creative Advocacy Network wants to reverse the trend by asking voters to support a tax levy that would restore arts education to every child in the city.

The group is working on a new tax measure that could potentially land on the ballot this November, after four years of work. In 2008, a group of arts, education, business and government leaders engaged the public to create what they call the Creative Action Plan, a vision for establishing a dedicated annual fund for the arts and arts education.

"We're so close," says Jessica Jarratt Miller, the group's executive director.

After talks with city commissioners this week, The group plans to ask the council to put a measure on the November ballot establishing a $35-a-year income tax for Portland residents that would go toward funding arts education.

Jarratt Miller says the proposal should not compete with other potential bond measures on the ballot for Portland Public Schools and the library system.

Restore what's been lost

Both Portland mayoral candidates, Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith, say they support the idea behind CAN's effort.

For now, Miller says, advocates hope to raise $10 million to $14 million each year to restore art and music teachers in every elementary school in the city's six districts: Portland, David Douglas, Centennial, Parkrose, Reynolds and Riverdale. The funds would also provide grants, administered through the Regional Arts and Cultural Council, to schools and nonprofit organizations to make the arts more accessible to city residents.

The Creative Advocacy Network cites a new study by the U.S. Department of Education showing that arts education is on the decline at a much faster rate in Portland than it is nationally.

Ninety-four percent of elementary schools across the United States offer music instruction, according to the April study, while the rate in Portland's six public school districts is 58 percent.

In the visual arts, 83 percent of public elementary schools across the U.S. offer programming, compared to 18 percent in Portland.

In the past five years, Parkrose and Centennial school districts have cut arts and music teaching staff by half. Portland Public Schools has dropped all arts instruction in 22 schools in the past two years.

"Our schools used to have arts and music teachers in them," Jarratt Miller says. "But recently the focus of No Child Left Behind ... and budget cuts have led to a narrowing of the curriculum in schools. What's getting left behind are arts and music. We're losing it at a rate that is really scary. We're here to restore what's been lost, and make sure we don't lose it all."

Looking at themselves

Back at Sabin School, Chris Lamp's position was nearly cut for next school year by Access, the magnet school for gifted students that shares space in Sabin's building, where he spends a quarter of his time.

Funding for his position was restored through a $10 million deal among the city, district and teachers' union.

Lamp says his secret to staying on as the art teacher for so many years has been to make the program not just relevant in the school, but also in the community.

He's cast Sabin students' masterpieces far and wide, to gain both support and funding. He estimates it costs between $3,500 and $4,000 at the minimum to run an elementary or middle school art program.

For the past decade, Lamp has displayed his students' eye-poppingly bright abstract self-portraits at the Starbucks at Northeast Fremont and 15th Avenue. It was supposed to be temporary, but turned into a long-term deal, and the works are professionally exhibited.

Next to Starbucks, Whole Foods enlisted the help of Sabin students for a glass tile mural to be unveiled with a celebration at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 9.

The Council of the Great City Schools displayed Sabin students' bridge sketches as table centerpieces at their annual conference in Portland three years ago, which led to the students' collaboration in Sharon Wood Wortman's "Big and Awesome Bridges Book."

Still more Sabin artwork brings cheer to the walls at A Children's Place Bookstore on Fremont Street and 48th Avenue, the lobby of the new Dove Lewis Hospital, and at the Randall Children's Hospital at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in North Portland.

"They're really learning to look at themselves, know themselves through the art," says Katie Dunn, a clinical pediatric art therapist at the hospital. "It's so essential. We don't know how to talk about things all the time, but to have art and music, it makes it easier. It helps them develop."

Rick Freedman, owner of Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen in Arizona, is probably the biggest out-of-state collector of Sabin student works.

Seven years ago, the native Portlander saw them hanging at Starbucks and bought 12 prints on the spot, to add a family-friendly vibe to his restaurants. He has about 30 in all.

Freedman's collection was a happy accident; his original intention was to support his local schools in Arizona by displaying students' artwork in his restaurants and auctioning them off to raise money for the schools.

"I sent out over 100 invitations in a five-mile radius to the schools, to the art teachers, and got zero response," he says. "I gave up right away."

One of Lamp's favorite stories is about Corey's cars. Three years ago, one of his second-graders, Corey Graves, was legally blind and had a knack for drawing cars.

So Lamp put together a one-man show at Starbucks, selling the original sketches with permission, in addition to dozens of prints. Eighth-graders had helped fill in the sketches with bright colored pencil.

"His cars were just fantastic," Lamp recalls. "The imagination he put into them was incredible. .... I just hope that he knows he was highlighted for his special skill and can continue to do that, whether he has art or not."