Artist Goes Back to School, Inspires Students

Mural at Oak Park Elementary created by alumni Chris Vance and students. Photo credit: Des Moines Public Schools.

Chris Vance was back in his old stomping grounds.

The Des Moines native was visiting his old elementary school, Oak Park, on the city’s north side. He was an artist-in-residence, developing lessons for each grade’s arts curriculum and working with students on a mural.

“I went to Oak Park about 30 years ago,” he said. “When they asked me if this was something I wanted to do, I said ‘Yes, anything for Oak Park.’ That was part of the concept that drove me to this project, and incorporating art into the classroom intrigued me.”

His journey back to school began with Des Moines Public School staffer Ben Heinen, who oversees the Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts program at Oak Park and Cattell schools. The program brings arts education resources into selected schools as a tool for larger challenges and opportunities.

“I knew this project was something we wanted to do, so I applied for an Art Project Grant from the Iowa Arts Council, and that made it all happen,” Ben said. “And then I saw Chris’ work and knew he’d be perfect for it. I didn’t even know he attended Oak Park as a student.”

During his week-long residency, Chris showed students his own work, mentored them, and helped them create and submit artwork for an 8-by-48-foot mural that now overlooks the school’s playground on the west side of the building.

He selected more than 40 student pieces for the mural and incorporated them into a 12-panel piece that tells the story of student growth — from the raw, energetic scribblings of kindergartners to the robots and a rocketships sketched by fifth-graders.

“My own work tends to be childlike and playful, so working with the kids and sparking their creativity was very rewarding,” Chris said. “Every single kid in the school had a chance to work with me over the week I was there, and we took the concept of taking pieces from every grade level to have a wide range of works.”

When the mural was finished and secured to the building, the staff, students and school neighbors loved it.

“We had more than 300 people here for the reveal, and the students’ reaction was incredible,” Ben said. “They were hooting and hollering, and we even had parents and others shedding tears. It really gives this community a sense of identity and pride.”

During a recent conversation, Chris reflected on the mural project, his student years at Oak Park and how his early interest in and exposure to art helped him create a future for himself.

“When I was there, I started out drawing monsters and stuff just like these kids do,” he said. “And then I was selected by my teacher to receive free art classes at the Des Moines Art Center. That opened up a whole new world of opportunities that I never knew existed. It gave me the courage and confidence to pursue what I wanted to do.”

Ben said the mural project has opened up possibilities for his students, too.

“I can’t emphasize enough how transformative this project has been for our students, and we couldn’t and wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of the Iowa Arts Council,” he said. “These kids know there are opportunities out there waiting for them. And, even if they don’t pursue a career in the arts, they’ve gained an experience that is integral to their becoming fully rounded individuals later in life.”

This is just one example of the many projects supported by the Iowa Arts Council. If you have a great idea for a project of your own, we encourage you to apply for a grant for your own school, community or nonprofit organization.

Applications for most our grant programs are coming up May 1, and the deadline for the School Arts Experience grant is June 30. Links to pre-recorded webinars about the application process are available under each grant program category.

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