Announcing the FLY Children’s Art Center

My friend Ruth Marks is launching an incredibly cool children’s art program in Ypsi called FLY, and I had an opportunity this weekend to ask her a few questions about it… Here’s the interview:

MARK: So, what’s FLY?

RUTH: FLY Children’s Art Center is a non-profit organization that makes meaningful art making experiences accessible to children ages 5-10 in Ypsilanti. We chose our name FLY in reference to flight, in reference to the 90’s hip-hop term for amazing, and to signify For the Love of Ypsilanti. We offer open studio style classes in the community for a small fee, as well as activities inside public schools at no cost to the students.

MARK: So, what kinds of workshops do you have in mind? And, if it’s possible, could you walk us through a typical session and tell us what kids are likely to be doing?

fly_round2RUTH: Right now we have eight classes scheduled from October to December at the Community Center (1015 N. Congress). These are happening on Friday afternoons, and each has a different theme. The first one is kinetic sculpture/marble chutes. When the children arrive, the supplies will be set up cafeteria style in one area. Everything will be accessible, visible and available. The children can choose the tools and materials they want to use, and move to a work area- maybe on the floor or at a table, wherever they are comfortable. Then each child, or children together will begin to construct a marble chute. This begins with making a simple hill, and having the satisfaction of making a little ball roll down. After the thrill of this wears off, more and more elaborate stunts and obstacles are introduced for this little marble until a complicated mechanism has been built. There will be adults there to assist but it is really about kids learning for themselves how things work, how to put parts together to make a whole. You can only learn by experience the powers and limitations of masking tape.

Each of the classes will be organized in a similar open studio way, with cafeteria style supplies organized around a theme or idea. We want to encourage children to be critical thinkers, risk takers, and creative problem solvers. These are the skills this generation needs to pull this ship around, you know? Our other themes for this season include: sewing with felt, making a mobile, large scale scenery painting, etc.

MARK: I know that, for quite a while, you were a public school art teacher, and I’m wondering if this new project is in any way informed by that experience.

RUTH: Yes. I was drawn to teaching in public schools as an idealist. I started teaching in Willow Run Community Schools because that was the neighborhood I grew up in. I had this idea that I could plant little seeds in my community to bring light and life through art making. Working with the kids was very rewarding and inspiring. Young children have such a thirst for knowledge and an incredible optimism. They think anything is possible! I became discouraged teaching at Willow Run by the sheer numbers of students. I was teaching seven or eight classes a day with thirty kids in each and my whole teaching style just became very efficient and mechanical for survival sake. This is not a knock on Willow Run at all, more just the public school system in general. There has been so much research done on the effectiveness of smaller class sizes, but that is not always a priority for school administrators. Anyways, I began really hating teaching because I wasn’t able to really reach the students and allow them to be creative or spontaneous. We had to be organized and efficient to fit in with the system. I would worry at night about the kids I had not gotten to interact with that day because I never got to that part of the room or whatever. I quit teaching at Willow Run, then taught in Dearborn Public Schools for seven years and then quit there too for the same reasons. I still had this tiny dream inside me and this original love of working with kids. It was a conversation with my sister-in law that inspired me to found FLY. I remembered that original idealistic dream to facilitate opportunities for kids in my community. Through the art center, I can have smaller class sizes and a slower pace, so that there is room for kids to innovate and experiment. I am excited!

MARK: You and I have discussed Happen, Inc. in Cincinnati before, and I suspect there other organizations around the country pursuing innovative arts programming for kids. I’m curious as to what you learned from these other groups, and what, if anything, you borrowed from them.

RUTH: I really admire the innovative programming at Happen. You know I am in love with all things Cincinnati, and Happen is a good example. They have that interesting model similar to 826 Ann Arbor that has a retail space which generates income to pay for their programming. We are all having to be more creative with fundraising, and it is exciting to see people successfully forging a new path. I don’t think non-profits can depend on the availability of huge grants and foundations as much any more, especially new ventures. I am more optimistic about the “click to donate” button on my website than getting funds from the AACF for sure.

I was also looking at the style of San Francisco Children’s Art Center I really like their website, and their simple way of presenting themselves. It is important to stay focused on your mission, plus it is essential to present yourself in a way that is easy to understand. Looking at their program reinforced for me the relevance of process based curriculum. They have really captured the joy of experimentation and risk taking. Plus I love their documentation style. It demonstrates that the act of making is important, sometimes even more important than the product, especially when you are learning. I have been in communication with them, and joked about how I was going to just sort of copy and paste their website into my domain name. I don’t think they thought it was funny, but their style is just so clean.

MARK: So, assuming that you get lots of kids and parents buying into this idea, and Fly is successful in it’s current incarnation (having classes at the Community Center), where do you see going? Five years from now, where would you like for FLY to be?

RUTH: So far the response has been amazing. I feel really lucky to have friends who are so well connected that just a simple email campaign can reach far into the community. I guess it also demonstrates the need in our community and the willingness of parents to invest in arts programming for their kids.

In five years I would really like to have a building. For me part of creating an immersive experience has to do with the actual art making environment, so our own space would be great. I plan to offer more classes, and include the younger ages as well (2-4). There is a real demand for that age group.

The heart of this venture is the desire to bring opportunities to kids in Ypsilanti who might not otherwise get the chance to explore and manifest their creative ideas. There are already some great programs working with homeless kids in Ypsi that I would like to partner with. Having our own space would mean having a resource to share with them. I am building a partnership with Chapelle School, and I would like to see even more of that. By partnering with the public schools, I can reach the kids in our community at a place that is easily accessible to them, and support the administrators and teachers who are over-extended in their efforts.

The thing I am really looking forward to are having events and installations in public places. We have talked about doing a hair show similar to Hair Wars, with designs inspired by kids drawings, or a kinetic Sculpture race, or building installation pieces. Collaborations between local artists and the kids at FLY can only mean great things. Making something that is publicly appreciated is a life changing event for a child. I would love to facilitate that.

The first class will be Friday, October 23. There will be both a 4:30 session, and a 6:00 session. Classes are limited to 8 children. Registration materials can be found here.

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  1. Page
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    This is terrific. I’ve been jealous of Ann Arbor for having 826. It’s great that Ypsi gets something just as promising for the non-literary arts.

  2. Lisele
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m excited that Ruth will be getting some of the fabric leftovers from the Ypsi Food Coop Quilt Club — defunct at the moment. In addition to Amish style quilts, we made crazy quilts for raffle — each of them so unique and wonderful! One included tee-shirts from Ypsilanti sites & activities with crazy pieced borders and lots of embroidered embellishments. I’d love to pop into FLY some time and check out the activities!

  3. DM
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    There are a lot of downtown buildings that could use murals, if that fits within the purview of FLY.

    It’s not mentioned here, but summer camps might also be popular. Is that something that’s been considered?

  4. Posted September 28, 2009 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    I am excited for the fabric scraps, thank you! Murals are a possibility as well as the whole Summer, Spring and Winter Break Camps idea. Parents are very interested in that for sure. Right now we are focusing on making sure this first round of classes is awesome. Go Team!

  5. Kristen Cuhran
    Posted September 29, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Ruth- for what is is worth in your “5 years from now” visioning: the blue house on the NW corner of Normal and Congress (with the Midtown Community Garden in back) has always seemed to me a good potential community space. It is currently rented, but the owner had been trying to sell it. Ample parking, in a neighborhood close to downtown, huge rooms with old wood, community garden in back…
    Just a thought!

  6. Posted September 29, 2009 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    This sounds amazing– congratulations, Ruth!

  7. Kim Demick
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Ruth –
    I’m so excited to hear what you are building and nurturing here in Ypsi! I just moved here from Ann Arbor since I spend more of my time here and honestly, I love the community much more. I have past experience doing non-profit grantswriting and teaching children’s art classes if you need any more help. I would love to be a part of helping this grow. Like you, I stopped teaching through community college and public school courses because it was impossible to give the kids the time and attention I wanted to. This is wonderful- TH-ank you!

  8. Ruth
    Posted October 12, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I would love for you to join our team, please email me through the website so we can make some plans!

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