The Hattiesburg Arts Council has found an innovative way to keep minds occupied during the COVID-19 pandemic by developing virtual arts classes.
“Our outreach is so extensive, and we really want to make sure that the kids are still having their needs met and even their parents and adults,” Hattiesburg Arts Council Executive Director Rebekah Stark Johnson said.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m. on the City of Hattiesburg Parks and Recreation Facebook page, there is a livestream of art projects for viewers to follow.
In the first two weeks, the streamed classes have had more than 3,000 viewers.
“We also receive private and corporate funds from this community,” Johnson said. “What we want to make sure to let the community know is that we don’t stop even in the midst of a crisis. We continue to reach out to the community and make sure that creative needs are being met. This is one way that we can do that and let them know that our funds are not sitting stagnant.
“It’s really important that people recognize the importance of the arts, especially at times like this. We just want to make sure that we are not only available to the community but to the artists who need to be represented throughout the whole rest of the year. Our programs will continue one way or the other, but we really look forward to our outreach as the coronavirus hopefully gets eliminated.”
Abigail Allen, who is the program coordinator for SmART Space, teaches the classes and develops the content for each class.
“Abigail Allen is a force to reckon with; she is amazing,” Johnson said.
Each class starts with 30 minutes of stretching before the art projects. According to Allen, the goal is to allow kids time to simply move around and release some energy.
“When I’m teaching kids during the normal days, they get a little bit of time to wiggle, stretch their bodies, to laugh, make noise and dance, jump, scream and shout,” Allen said. “I feel like I’m tricking the kids. What I’m going for is proper posture and having them understand the connection that they need to have with their bodies. I just disguise it all with games and silly business. The parents can do it with them. It’s super fun, and it’s just half an hour. You can just sit on the floor and follow along.”
Joining Allen during the streams is her daughter, Francis, who, according to Allen, has helped play a role in developing the experience of the videos.
“The strange little gift that I have gotten with doing this online is (getting) to do this with my daughter, Frances,” Allen said. “She’s home from school, and after the first time, she said, ‘I want to do it every time. I think it’s important that I do this.’ She’s doing the class with me, and it’s really fun to have a kid there.”
The crafts are designed so that anyone can have the materials for the art projects anywhere in their house.
“What we are trying to do as we go is pick crafts that you can do with things that nine times out of 10 if you are a parent you have these things in your house already, so you don’t have to add it on to your essential shopping list,” Allen said.
Projects vary from creating masks and drawing visual journals.
“Every time we do a show, Frances actually does the drawing, and we pick a subject and ask everyone else to do that drawing,” Allen said. “It’s things like ‘What do you miss about school?’ or ‘What are things that you have done with this time off?’ It’s things that pertain to what kids are going through right now.”
In addition, the council has also teamed up with local Head Start programs, which distribute school lunches to children during the pandemic. According to Johnson, the goal is to help supply children with art projects from the council’s stockpile of supplies.
“We have a lot of recycled items. (For example), people give us yarn or craft project things like popsicle sticks and crayons and all,” Johnson said. “But because we have a stockpile of things that we use for our classes, we decided to also help out with the Head Start program that is doing the public school (lunch distributions). When the kids are picking up their lunches, we have put together art projects in Ziploc bags or paper bags ... anything from making puppets to stringing beads.”
As of now, more than 200 art packages have been distributed with those lunches.
“We just wanted to make sure that they were given some of the materials to do projects at home and come up with ideas as well as watching the online program for an additional program to be creative,” Johnson said.
Johnson credits most of the class’ popularity to Allen and her charisma.
“I couldn’t imagine a better person than her doing this right now,” Johnson said. “She is not only wonderful to work with, but her heart is so in this. She wants to make sure that her message of self-esteem and positive creativity is being distributed all around.”
According to Allen, she wants parents to appreciate their time with their children.
“I think it’s really a scary time for kids, and we have to remember that,” Allen said. “But it’s also a really beautiful time for kids. They are home with their families. I would love to tell every parent to embrace this time and not let your stress and fear get in the way of the fact that we have been given this gift of this downtime. I hear every parent say, ‘I wish I had more time,’ ... well, now we have that time, and we need to embrace and enjoy our children while we can.”