Celebrating art for 20 years

MARSHALL – It was a special day at Southwest Minnesota State University. Instead of college students in the classrooms, you were just as likely to see kindergarteners learning to draw cartoons, kids bending wire into sculptures, or middle-schoolers brushing up on their painting techniques.

“I think it’s a blast,” said Kim Klausen, a chaperone accompanying students from Jackson County Central Elementary as they learned to play their own homemade instruments during one session.

The variety of activities were all part of the Conference for Young Artists, held Wednesday at the SMSU campus. The event, which hosts art classes for kids across southwest Minnesota, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

“It’s a very neat event,” said Sue Gorecki, student activities coordinator at the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative.

The Conference for Young Artists is one of three annual youth conferences SW/WC Service Cooperative organizes, along with conferences dedicated to writing and science. Gorecki said the inspiration for the first Conference for Young Artists back in 1994 was to provide area youth with artistic opportunities they might not otherwise get in school.

“Even back then, the arts were one of the first things to get cut when there were budget issues,” Gorecki said.

More than 800 people attended the first conference, Gorecki said, and attendance has stayed strong. For the past two years, she said, the number of elementary and middle school students attending the conference was more than 1,000.

Despite some snowy weather the night before, attendance at this week’s conference was no exception. In opening remarks on Wednesday morning, SMSU President Connie Gores said more than 1,000 students were attending. In addition to kids from more than 22 schools in an 18-county area, more than 165 home-schooled children attended.

Gorecki said the variety of conference presenters has also grown throughout the years. Sometimes new art instructors joined on through word-of-mouth.

“The first couple years, we didn’t have any pottery or clay sessions. Then Jim Swartz came up to us and asked what was going on,” Gorecki said. Swartz, who was an SMSU art professor at the time, has helped teach students to throw pottery at the conference ever since. “Now, they’re some of our most popular classes.”

“We have some presenters who come back every year,” Gorecki said, but there’s always room to try some new and different classes.

“It takes a lot of work to get everything together,” Gorecki said. Besides organizing the classes and registering students, event organizers also handle tasks like putting up signs leading the way to classrooms spread out over the university campus. A wide variety of sponsors and supporters also help make the conference possible every year. This year, title sponsors included the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council and the Southwest Minnesota Workforce Council.

The Conference for Young Artists is more than a day of fun activities, said area educators. It’s also a chance for kids to learn and develop their creativity.

“A lot of the things they teach here are things you might not learn in school,” said art teacher Paul Tuszynski, who was accompanying students from Lynd Public School at the conference. Art forms that require a lot of specialized equipment, like pottery, can be harder to bring into small-school settings.

“We don’t really have an art teacher, so it’s a great opportunity,” Lake Benton Elementary School teacher Mary Haugen said of the conference.

Sara Wollum, a paraprofessional at Canby Public Schools, said it was good to see students master new creative skills.

“It’s fun to watch their faces light up when they see they can accomplish the same things as the instructor,” Wollum said.