Over the summer, after Kalyn Fuller agreed to be the art teacher for all 1,600 elementary students at Columbus Municipal School District for the upcoming school year, she told her husband she was concerned about how the students would obtain art supplies — or school supplies in general.
Many of the students would be learning from home, and even those attending school in person were taking art classes online from their classrooms to minimize movement throughout the buildings and help curb the spread of COVID-19. In previous years, when Fuller taught art to just Joe Cook Elementary students, she had simply had students use supplies from her classroom.
That was where the Columbus Arts Council — with the help of Columbus Exchange Club and Junior Auxiliary — came in. CAC Executive Director Jan Miller had reached out to CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat about providing boxes full of art supplies to each student at Cook.
“(Labat) said, ‘If you do that, if we could do that for the whole district, every elementary school child, we would meet the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing) standards and we wouldn’t have to worry about how they were going to get their supplies,'” Miller told members of Columbus Exchange Club, who helped get the project off the ground, during its weekly meeting Thursday at Lion Hills Center. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll see what I can do.'”
With the help of the Exchange Club, Junior Auxiliary and private donations, Miller and the arts council raised $10,000, enough to provide boxes full of crayons, colored pencils, scissors, glue and more to every elementary student at CMSD, as well as the students at West Lowndes Elementary in Lowndes County School District.
“I think I’m also speaking for the school district when I say we are so incredibly grateful for this opportunity and to be one of the districts that actually got to utilize this,” Fuller said. “When school let out in March, a lot of districts all over the state, their children and their parents were financially struggling or … trying to recover from maybe a furlough or losing their job due to not enough work. So this was a huge opportunity for us to be able to give back to our students and parents as well.”
Though it was probably CAC’s biggest project since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and other aspects of public life in March, it wasn’t the only one. Though they were limited in some of the programming — Miller said there won’t be a musician performing at the Rosenzweig Arts Center downtown until February 2021 at the earliest — the council kept others in place by maintaining social distancing or simply bringing art to people in their homes.
“Our goal has always been to provide art and music to our community,” Miller said. “Now we’re just doing it in a different way. We have to go outside of our walls of our building and provide services as well as inside, and that is hard to do right now.”
When the pandemic first hit in the spring, Miller told the Exchange Club, it threw the arts council into a “tailspin.”
“How were we going to stay relevant in a time when no one was walking through the door?” she said. “Because the way we get donations and contributions is people walking through our door.”
She credited the Exchange Club with providing many of the funds and other aid CAC needed to keep going during the pandemic, including starting the $10,000 grant used to fund the art boxes — along with help from JA, which provided about $3,500 and packed the boxes to take into the schools.
The Rosenzweig Arts Center, CAC’s downtown gallery and theater, reopened on June 1. At first, Miller told The Dispatch, only 10 people were allowed in the facility at a time and visitors were assigned times to come. Soon, though, she realized that the building could legally accommodate 25 percent capacity, which opened up the main and lower levels to around 70 people at a time.
Since then, Miller said, art galleries have returned and the council has welcomed back organizations that utilize the building for regular meetings and practices, such as the Suzuki Strings Orchestra, whose members stay six feet apart when they practice downstairs.
“I will never in my life forget the first day that they came back after COVID, and those little violinists were down there doing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ …” Miller said. “And I was like, ‘Ah, they’re back.'”
CAC also truncated its annual summer art camps to one Art Academy. Eleven students between the ages of 8 and 11 participated in the program, which focused on visual arts in the morning and dance and theater in the afternoon, Miller said. Next year, she hopes to offer weeklong camps for both art and theater.
The upstairs theater and stage is the only part of the building CAC can’t use, Miller said, since there isn’t enough room to have a socially distanced crowd watching performances. Thus theater and music performances are on hold for the time being.
Art during the pandemic
For some, art has been a way of coping during the stress and boredom of lockdown and other difficulties during the pandemic. Ralph Null, a Columbus resident whose art hung in the Rosenzweig this month, said he had done a handful of paintings here and there throughout the years, but that it became his escape during the pandemic.
“I just went to my studio every day and painted because life was boring otherwise,” Null said. “You couldn’t go anywhere.”
That was the inspiration for the 180 paintings he ended up donating to the art gallery, all of which he painted during the pandemic. He bounced from landscapes to depictions of plants and flowers — a nod to his career as a floral arrangement artist — to more abstract pieces.
“Some mornings I go to the studio and forget I was there and realize it was 3 o’clock, and I was hungry and my coffee had gotten cold sitting on the table. So it’s been good,” he said. “The psychological drug for me during this whole time has been painting.”
Each of Null’s pieces were available to buy, and Miller said he’s donating half of the proceeds to the arts council.
Which is good, she said, because the success of the art boxes for the elementary students encouraged Miller and her employees to get involved in more outreach programs during the pandemic.
Their next project is to partner with the YMCA, also located downtown, to provide free art classes to the homeschooled students who attend activities there.
“We’re going to offer free classes to the homeschoolers and they’re going to walk them over to us, and we’re going to have one day of art with the arts council,” she said. “… We will be paying for all the art supplies when they come over and we’ll provide the art teachers.”
With the support of the community, she said, she hopes everything can get back to normal and that CAC can continue outreach programs and support for local artists.
“We feel so strongly about supporting our artists and our musicians that we are working hard to make sure they are getting everything they need to get their name back out there and start back doing what they do best,” she said. “We work every day with our artists and that’s where we are looking for assistance to help with our outreach. Hopefully things will get back to normal.”