Leading by Example: Donna Brown, living art, sharing art

In this year’s Philanthropy Issue we bring you the stories of seven people inspiring others in our community.

Every summer, the children of itinerant cherry pickers in northern Door County participate in the Migrant Education Program, run by Gibraltar School and the Hardy Gallery. And every summer, artist and educator Donna Brown provides the arts enrichment for the program, which also focuses on state mandated skills such as reading and math.

“There are so many variables with the program,” says Brown. “The time of summer can vary widely, it all depends on when the cherries are ripe. The duration can vary, and so can the number of kids, and their ages.”

All this uncertainty could be enough to give the most experienced teacher a headache, but Brown, who has been working with the program since its inception in 2002, is the kind of person who can be flexible. And, she adds, “I like a challenge.”

Many children who participate in the program are transient, moving from district to district, and that often means that they are behind their peers academically. “They also are sometimes isolated,” says Brown. “We try to pull them out of themselves through art, to teach them that they have a voice.” But there are strengths as well. “Often brothers and sisters attend the program together. It’s a great dynamic, because they help each other and look out for one another.”

And the program is succeeding. “Art is just their favorite part of the day. It’s a big treat for them,” says Brown. She tailors lessons and activities to the academic content, taught by Gibraltar teachers Tom Zwicky and Mike Scoville. Themes have ranged from self-portraiture one year, to masks another, and to ‘What Art Can Be’ another year, when students had a chance to experience various art forms in Door County, including landscaping, restaurant food, theater, and photography.

“Donna tries to find out what it is that art means to each one of these children. She loves having that interaction with the kids,” says Scoville. Adds Zwicky, “Donna has been a constant over the years with this program. She understands the needs these kids have.”

Hardy Gallery Executive Director Beth Meissner-Gigstead works with Brown and the teachers to brainstorm how to best work together at the start of each program. “That’s where Donna shines in her expertise. She’s got the knowledge and understanding of how to bring it all together.”

The rewards of the work are many. “Many of the kids come back year after year, from the time they are six or seven. We get to see the changes, and that’s delightful,” says Brown. Responding to the changing dynamics of the program is a welcome challenge, too. “It’s great for me because it keeps me on my toes. I’m trying to work as a catalyst for them, at a level which is open to their joy. Then we take it from there.”

Sometimes it’s the little moments that make an impact. A group of pre-teen boys who had just discovered watercolor paints for the first time asked Brown where they could purchase the paints. “I asked Beth if we could just give them the paints, and she said yes,” Donna says. “They took the paints with them, and they were so happy.”

Brown describes one young man with a “definite ability to draw,” but who had been made fun of and was not really sure of himself. “During the program, he really became much more confident. I enjoyed seeing how he changed and became less shy and more proud,” says Brown.

She believes that every single child who has been part of the program has gained. “The kids in this program love to do art, to learn new techniques. It makes them feel special and they are special! I find that the migrant camp kids are so receptive and appreciative. It is a joy to work with them.”

Brown’s vision of why she teaches is clear and powerful. “To make a drawing or sing a song or do a dance…these are simple joys anyone can and should do. Through the arts we can make the world more beautiful, can communicate without words, can be better at innovation and problem solving – oh, and yes, we can have fun doing it!” Each summer, with 6, or 10, or 15 children at a time, Brown reveals the simple joys of art to her students.

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