By ANGELA NIMS
Special to the Sunday Times
WYANDOTTE — What’s two to three feet tall, has hands covered in paint, and won’t want to leave? A child in a Doodlebug class.
The Downriver Council for the Arts features a variety of events and exhibits in support of local arts. One of its most interactive offerings is a youth art class geared toward toddlers: Doodle Bugs.
Dearborn artist Mary Gagnon wished to create an art class her 2-year-old son could handle and most parents could afford.
“It was so very exciting when the Downriver Council for the Arts decided to host my program,” Gagnon said.
Though she’s been an artist most of her life, it was while working her way through the last leg of her education that Gagnon fully realized the void of artistic resources many communities suffer.
“I was a substitute teacher in Detroit Public Schools for some time,” she said. “Everyone knows, art is the first course to be minimized. It was really sad for me to see so many children from so many backgrounds and neighborhoods without any art programs accessible to them.
“Creating something of their own volition, the self-confidence that grows from it is remarkable. Making something from nothing. I saw that wasn’t something that was a priority. It’s part of why I’m doing this. Had to figure out where to implement this, but the more neighborhoods and communities I can reach, the better.”
For most of the parents who sign up, Doodle Bugs is the only kind of artistic program they have the opportunity to access. While many art classes cost between $40 to $150, a drop-in to Doodle Bugs is only $10, and that covers all materials.
Based on her own experiences and what she’s learned along the way, Gagnon believes the benefits of art for children are clear.
“Creating art increases critical thinking, fine motor skills, problem solving,” she said. “You can see tangible progress, from increased self-esteem to being able to hone their motor skills. And it’s a really good outlet, emotionally, to express themselves. Their voice is important and their ideas can be brought to the forefront of something they’re making.”
Southgate resident Crystal Martin has attended Doodle Bugs with her 3-year-old son. Martin applauds Doodle Bugs’s freeform take on creating art.
“Doodle Bugs is not your average kid’s crafting class with prefabricated projects and coloring pages,” Martin said. “It is not an assembly line crafting session. It allows children to engage in sensory experiences, explore and manipulate raw materials, and use their imaginations.”
Jen Lucier Finkel’s 5-year-old daughter, Stella, has begged to return to the class. For Finkel, the inherent freedom of the class was most rewarding.
“It’s unstructured. In a sense,” she said. “They have the project. The supplies. The instruction. And they let the kids go. Let them express themselves. No need to be careful or clean. It’s time to get messy. They encouraged it. But they were also aware of the short attention span. They moved them along and we even had time for singing and playing at the end.”
Ending with a song seems to go over very well with the short-statured fan base.
“My son loves the songs, dancing and marching at the end,” Martin said. “It’s great for kids of all ages.”
Though it may look like taped down tarps and finger paint gone wild, Gagnon gives the classes careful consideration.
“Every session has a different focus from American abstract to stamp work,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of mixed media. I really try and take different mediums that I use in my own art and try to make it toddler-appropriate.
“Often people don’t have a lot of faith in what kids can handle, but I really find they pay such close attention and really grab hold of the concept. They might not be able to articulate the concept, but they like the way the paint feels or the tear of tissue.”
Parental involvement is an important aspect to the classes as well. Doodle Bugs doesn’t relegate parents to bench-warming status. Carving an hour out of Saturday morning for an artistic endeavor can be easier for a parent to plan than implement. Setup and cleanup can stretch one hour to two or three. Gagnon seeks to combat that.
“Doodle Bugs is designed for parents and kids to interact and both take away something from experience,” she said. “I know being a parent means busy schedules and parents want to do a lot, especially with music or art, but then schedules prevent it.
“I think this class has really allowed for that. It’s creative problem solving together, doing something artistic that’s messy and they don’t have to clean up in their own home. It’s great to give that opportunity.”
One of Gagnon’s most proud moments during Doodle Bugs has been seeing the parent’s inner child mingle with the their toddler. One couple in particular stood out to her.
“I had a couple bring their daughter in for a class,” Gagnon said. “You could tell the dad was new to doing anything artistic. Obviously, his wife dragged him there, but he really got into it. The daughter was just beaming the whole time. She was so proud to be doing something like that with her mom and dad.”
The daughter of immigrant parents, who weren’t fully aware of community programs, Gagnon wasn’t enrolled in art classes growing up, but has turned that around.
“I’m a full-time artist now,” she said. “I was teaching before I had my son. But I’m really trying to hold out to be able to be home until he’s in preschool.”
When not orchestrating the Doodle Bugs, Gagnon sells scarves, jackets and art online and at vending shows.
“I try to use art to help people around me, helping to enrich the community,” she said. “Of course everyone would like to live off of their dream. It’s definitely a lot of sacrifice, and it’s scary. But it is so very gratifying at the end of the day.”
For more information on Doodle Bugs, go to www.facebook.com/Doodle Bugsdca.
(Contact Angela Nims at firstname.lastname@example.org.)