They march proudly, happily, through the halls of Whittier International Elementary School in Minneapolis, led by the school drum corps, giving high-fives to the students and teachers who line the corridors and cheer them wildly.
Water Girl. King Donkey III. Kiwi With a Jet Pack. Lightning Queen and King of Fire.
They’re superheroes, creatures from mysterious realms, vivid imagination made real in cardboard, cloth and duct tape.
They’re Art Buddies.
This scene, at the end of the recent school year in June, will be repeated as Art Buddies kicks off its 25th year in September. The nonprofit mentorship program, which matches adults from the Twin Cities creative industry with low-income students, serves about 300 children a year in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Adults and children meet after school for eight weeks, for an hour or so each week. Their goal: working together to create a costume that reflects the child’s unique interests, strengths and dreams. It’s a transformative experience for the kids — and for the adults who mentor them.
“It is the goofiest, most restorative hour you’ll spend,” said Heidi Brevik Rich, Art Buddies president and executive director. “It is so meaningful and joyful.”
“They come up with all these crazy ideas, and they make them work,” said Dar Natee, an adult mentor at Whittier. “If you let them lead, they’ll come up with something great.”
Natee worked with Whittier pupil Esteban Dominguez Sanchez to create a giant marshmallow costume. “It’s good,” Estaban said. “Especially the parade part.”
Heidi Makela, who’s been a mentor for six ssions, said the program “is really well run. They make it easy for us. You just show up and let the kids guide you.”
In this session, Makela worked with Tillie, a fourth-grader, to create a Baby Bear Ninja.
“She has been very self-directed,” Makela said. “I’ve done nothing but sit back and watch in amusement.”
In a world increasingly dominated by technology, Art Buddies is both lively and, dare we say, zenlike.
“It is tech-free and tactile,” said Sydnee Bickett-Rodriguez, program director. “Use a glue gun, cut some fabric, talk to a person.” All the supplies are provided by Knock, a Minneapolis creative agency.
Art Buddies was founded by Sue Crolick, a Minneapolitan who was one of the nation’s first female advertising creative directors.
Legend has it that Crolick was the inspiration for Peggy Olson, who fights sexism to rise in the fictional agency world of the TV series “Mad Men.”
Art Buddies has started a Saturday program — for professionals who can’t get away during the work week — and a summer program. The group also is working to recruit more mentors so it can increase the number of schools it serves.
“With budget cutbacks [in schools], Minneapolis and St. Paul kids have incredible needs for creative experiences,” said Brevik Rich. “Other kids might go to MacPhail [Center for Music] and fancy camps. We’re in four schools now and we have active requests from four more.”
The program never could have come this far, she said, without support from key partners, including the Minneapolis ad agency Carmichael Lynch and the local chapters of the Advertising Federation and the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
“I really like working with the kids and empowering them to use their skills,” said Tara Helm, an Art Buddies mentor.
“And,” she added, “seeing the magic in their eyes.”