PAMELA KOTANT For the State Gazette
When Maria Schirmer DeWitt heard that a Madison organization was looking for ideas and teachers for a summer camp, her thoughts turned to a way to combine her love of art and canoeing.
So one of the few ideas she came up with was for an “art on the lake” camp, where youth would do both activities, sometimes painting while sitting in their boats.
“I didn’t know if the art on the lake was going to be too weird, too impossible,” Schirmer Devitt said.
So she was pleased when she received an enthusiastic response from Jen Morea, Arts + Literature Laboratory’s director of education and outreach.
“I’ll never forget. She said, ‘You’re the artist I’ve been waiting for,'” Schirmer DeWitt said of Morea’s response.
So the two took Schirmer DeWitt’s “paragraph idea” and planned a summer camp that ended up being called Art and Canoeing. This was done in part by tapping into Schirmer Devitt’s relationship with Rutabaga Paddlesports. Through a partnership, Rutabaga provided canoes, other equipment and staff to help with paddling.
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The all-day, weeklong camp, which was open to children ages 7 to 10, is just one of the summer arts camps run by Arts + Literature Lab. It is based at Tenney Park Beach on Lake Mendota. The children would make some art there, and other times they would do it while sitting in the canoe or at a place they had paddled to.
Schirmer Devitt, who earned a master’s degree in social work before returning to art and design school, said she came up with the idea by thinking back to her own childhood.
“I thought about what 10-year-old Maria would like to do,” she said. “I loved being outside. It was a moment for me when I felt I could be myself in a different way. Art was another such place for me.
Duck Lit Lab
The seven kids at the camp, which ended Friday, thought of themselves as ducks who ventured out of their nest in Tenney Park every day and came up with the name “Duck Lit Lab,” Schirmer DeWitt said.
Campers began by paddling the Tenney Park Lagoon one day, progressing to the Yahara River and then canoeing to Burrows Park. By the last day, campers paddled Lake Mendota to Memorial Union Terrace, where they wrote nature poems and painted watercolor paintings. Then they shoveled back in and painted with chalk on the sidewalk next to the beach shelter.
While campers eventually got to swim in Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, Tenney Park’s beach was closed at the start of camp due to poor water quality. This led to a discussion of the issue and chalk drawings that depicted suggestions for how to care for the lake, or generally improve the environment, or what the campers were grateful for in relation to the lakes.
Second-grader Charlie Parker’s drawing depicts a man who climbs into bed and wishes the lake was clean, then wakes up to find it magically happened.
Fifth-grader Eila Frederickson’s chalk drawing depicts a red car and she writes, “stop pollution, turn off your car.” She said this was to encourage people to stop idling their vehicles.
“I was trying to appreciate our resources because one day we had to make paint brushes from nature, which was really hard, but also they worked really well,” Eila said of what she learned at the camp.
Eila said she made her brush using grass for the bristles and a stick for the handle.
“Jazz it up”
The art projects involved making portable art kits and then using the sketchbooks in a “secret area,” where a small piece of land that juts out into Lake Mendota is isolated by trees and other vegetation. They also made and decorated bags from old t-shirts.
One afternoon they collected wildflowers and other plants and formed teams to create a large mandala in the shape of a peace symbol with a heart inside. Underneath it, in the grass, they spelled “To the World” in wildflowers.
On the day they made papier-mâché masks, the campers talked about what one might not know just by looking at them. Then on the last morning the campers wrote something about who they were on the inside of their masks.
Fourth-grader Arturo Trinidad Mayo said his favorite art project was making his mask, but meeting friends is what he enjoys most about camp overall.
Third grader Allison Guzzi came up with an idea for the campers to make gifts for each other. They’re either found objects, snacks or things they’ve created, like poems or origami made by sixth-grader Gabriel Zarate Mitidieri. Alison brought plastic Easter eggs to hide the presents. She saw it as a way to take a traditional egg hunt and “live it up a little bit,” she said.
Schirmer Devitt works as a lead artist at Developing Artist Murals and Alliances and has been an artist-in-residence at the Goodman South Madison Library through the Bubbler program. She said one satisfying aspect of camp is how campers get to know and appreciate each other.
“The kids made it really special. There are definitely things I would change and do differently and there are a lot of things I learned,” she said. “It feels pretty magical that it happened.”