Friday, November 6, 2015

Meet Sarah Russell

When Dakota Elementary School's art teacher retired after many years of teaching it was announced that she would not be replaced, due to budget cuts. Sarah Russell, one of the school's aids at the time, knew exactly what to do. (Well, maybe not exactly, but this incredibly creative and fearless woman knew she would figure out the details as she went.) She approached the principal with her idea of taking over the program with her aid status and providing art time for the 350+ children. He accepted the idea.  Sarah promised that the program would not cost the school anything in materials.

Cereal Box chicken
Soon Sarah had the children bringing in used cereal boxes, plastic bottles, milk cartons and broken crayons to create amazing art using recycled garbage. She now has so many people donating their unwanted craft supplies ( you know we all have some ) that storage of these goods has become just as creative as the artwork itself, hanging garbage bags of bottles and other supplies from the rafters.
milk jugs

The end result: 350 + children in the Dakota district, grades K to 3, are learning art, how to be creative and to look at garbage in a new and exciting way.

These projects require hours of preparation before the children can make art but Sarah has no lack of energy, and often will recruit family members to help. One Thanksgiving Day she and her family spent 5 hours converting the Halloween Face project into Christmas Elves by adding clothed bodies and Santa hats. When the children came back to school the following Monday they were greeted by a hallway full of  holiday cheer.

Sarah's talents have touched more than
just those at the school.
One Christmas each grade created 6 foot, lighted Christmas trees for the annual Holiday concert. Sarah decided to raffle off the trees as a fundraiser for the local food pantry. The check she delivered, $1400, was the largest donation the pantry had ever received. TV crews were on hand the report the story.

Pizza boxes and laundry detergent bottles

 I met Sarah while demonstrating at 317 Studio & Gallery. She was interested in a technique I was using, for her classes room. She came to my house for a private lesson. I could tell immediately she was an incredible person with many talents. I knew I had to have her share her story with the Rockford Art Guild.


Last Tuesday, Sarah shared her story and many of her art projects to a very interested art guild crowd which included several art teachers.

You see, Sarah doesn't even consider herself an artist as she does not hold an art education degree or any formal training. Her class is not called "Art class" but "Arts and Crafts class"  to differentiate between the two. The guild members all confirmed her artist status as she told many wonderful stories and shared great project ideas.

As far as the school art budget goes... what budget? In the last four years she has spent $60 of the school's money. 
Everything else has been donated or recycled.

She ended the night with one of her favorite stories  which she recalled with tears in her eyes. One day the mother of a First Grader approached her and said, "Ms. Russell, we have a problem." Sarah was immediately concerned and listened to the mother as she told her that she was cleaning out her son's closet one day when she found piles of garbage; water bottles, cereal boxes, milk jugs and other items. When she asked her son why he was collecting garbage in his closet. He replied.

" I know it's just garbage now but someday it's going to be something really beautiful."

water bottles

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