published Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Drawing on creativity

by Kelli Gauthier
  • photo
    Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Susanne Bowling, right, looks at Dannah Patterson's painting during art class at Calvin Donaldson Elementary School.

When Susanne Bowling started teaching art at Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, she found third-graders who couldn’t wield a pair of scissors and fifth-graders who had never held a paintbrush.

When class was over, students would start crying, afraid they wouldn’t be allowed to come back.

Out of 44 elementary schools in the district, only 11 have art programs, and only four of those are funded by the school system. The rest are paid for through fundraisers and parent-teacher associations.

“It’s a huge gap in our education. We’re not teaching to the creative side of children, the problem-solving side of children,” Bowling said.

So Bowling, an artist and former educator, got together with friend Gayle Ligon and launched a nonprofit organization to offer art programs to elementary schools willing to give them classroom space.

Bowling said ArtPart is starting small — this year at Calvin Donaldson only — but she hopes to see the program grow, offering art to more children and jobs to more local artists.

To expand the program to include one full-time teaching position, Bowling must be a Hamilton County Schools employee. She and Ligon still must provide the salary and benefits for the position, which will require them to raise $50,000 by April.

Of the 11 elementary schools with art teachers, most are magnet schools, said Calvin Donaldson Principal Becky Coleman. Because her magnet school has an environmental science focus, she never had a grant to pay for an art program.

Having Bowling and Ligon volunteer to teach students art has had a positive impact, she said.

“Our goal is to educate the whole child. We have seen such growth,” she said. “It’s a way for [students] to express themselves in a positive way. They can create something from start to finish, and there’s no right or wrong answer; it belongs to them.”

Karla Riddle directs the magnet school and fine arts programs for Hamilton County Schools.


To volunteer your time, contact Susanne Bowling at or Gayle Ligon at


Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga

(memo: Calvin Donaldson ArtPart fund)

1270 Market St.

Chattanooga, TN 37402


While she wishes more schools had art programs, her department has virtually no budget, she said, other than for bringing in consultants for professional development for teachers.

“I don’t think we have a real focus on fine arts, and this seems to be nationwide,” she said. “What’s tested is what’s funded. ... But there’s all sorts of research coming out about the importance of the arts.”

All but one middle school — East Ridge Middle — and all the district’s high schools have art classes, Riddle said. But since they are often lumped in with music, dance or theater as a fine arts elective, there’s no guarantee a student ever will get the chance to partake.

Before the county and city school systems merged in 1997, elementary art was the responsibility of the classroom teacher, Riddle said. When Hamilton County’s magnet program started in 2002, the district used some of its start-up grant money to fund several programs.

Public elementary schools in Nashville all have certified art teachers, Riddle said, but she doesn’t see that happening here any time soon.

If it were just up to the students at Calvin Donaldson, art would be a core part of the elementary curriculum; they can’t get enough of the classes.

As they painted pictures of bright red cardinals, Jamilia Macon and her third-grade classmates all agreed that art is now one of their favorite classes.

“You get to be colorful and creative,” the 9-year-old said.

“We’re even going to make a bowl, a real bowl,” added Jada McCrary, 8.

Bowling said she would love to see ArtPart provide art programs for all elementary schools in the district, but she knows that dream is a long way off. She and Ligon aren’t taking salaries, and the entire program is funded by monetary and in-kind donations.

“Our hope is to raise awareness and see how we can help our school system, to make a difference,” she said. “We’re working on coming up with a sustainable model for that. ... It’s still pretty much volunteer.”

about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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