Waylon Ramsey fought back tears as he drew his self-portrait.
“What’s wrong, Waylon?” Maria Panteli-Allen asked the second-grader. “Did something get into your eyes?”
Waylon’s art teacher at White Hills Elementary School in Baker used the collar of his oversized smock to wipe his eyes while he shook his head from side to side.
“No,” he said. “They’re just tears of joy because I get to come here and do this.”
Their visit came on the final day of the museum’s September ArtWorks, an interactive program for prekindergarten through second-grade students at White Hills Elementary.
“Other museums around the country have done similar programs, and when they tracked the students’ (academic) progress, they found it’s made a difference,” said Lucy Perera, the museum’s coordinator of school and community programs.
The museum initiated the program during the 2013-14 school year, focusing on prekindergarten through first-grade students.
“These are the same students who came last year,” Perera said. “We’ll add a grade each year, and in the end, we will have tracked these students from the time they enter prekindergarten until they finish elementary school, and we’ll be able to see how learning about the arts has affected other parts of their education.”
State funding for arts education has been cut in public school systems in recent years. When developing ArtWorks, Perera sought a school with small enrollment with no supplemental funding for an arts program.
“We’re working only with White Hills now and though the school has an art teacher but it had no outside funding for arts at the time,” Perera said. “We understand that they now have a partnership with the Manship Theatre, but at the beginning, they had nothing.”
And enrollment numbers are low enough to allow all students in each of the participating grades to take part. For instance, the 26 students attending Friday’s session represented White Hills’ entire second-grade class.
“It’s almost as if White Hills has been forgotten,” Perera said. “But we’re able to work with each of these students, and when they come back each year, we remember them.”
The museum sets aside one week each month for ArtWorks during the school year. One grade attends each day, with the program beginning in the galleries.
The program’s lesson on this day focused on the museum’s “LeRoy Neiman: Action!” exhibit, which showcases the work of singular American artist and sports illustrator LeRoy Neiman.
Children sat on the floor in a semicircle as Perera pointed out Neiman’s works and explained the difference between a sketch and a painting.
She used Neiman’s 1967 sketch of New York Jets offensive tackle Sherman Plunkett, who coined the nickname “Broadway Joe” for legendary Jets quarterback Joe Namath.
“LeRoy Neiman sketched this player in three different positions,” Perera said. “Can anyone tell me what this player is doing?”
The kids were silent, stirring only when their teacher, Theresa King, raised her hand.
“He’s going into a three-point stance,” she said.
Perera asked for a demonstration, and King stood in the football set position, then touched the floor with her left hand for the three-point stance.
“When the ball is snapped, he stands up with his arms out, ready to stop the defense,” King said.
Which led to Perera’s next question: Why would Neiman make these sketches of Plunkett?
“It’s like a before and after,” one student answered, correctly.
Artists sketch their subjects before placing them in a finished piece.
More lessons like this one followed as Perera guided the students first to Neiman’s sketches of LSU’s Pistol Pete Maravich, then to Neiman’s baseball paintings and prints.
But first, Perera gathered the second-graders into a huddle, then ordered all to take a three-point stance, after which she passed a football to a fellow staffer.
“She makes it fun,” said King, noting that many of the students “had never been in a museum before this program started.”
Which is another dimension of this program.
“I believe that once we’ve finished tracking these students, they will go to a museum later in their lives,” Perera said. “They’ll be comfortable with it, because they’ll know how to navigate it, and they’ll know it’s a place where they’ll have fun.”
But the program didn’t stop with the gallery visit. An art activity awaited the students in the museum’s multipurpose room on the third floor. There, students pulled on oversized T-shirts, which served as smocks, and sat on cushions beside a large piece of carpet. Sheets of newsprint were laid out for each of them.
The idea was to follow Neiman’s lead by sketching self-portraits of themselves using charcoal sticks. Color pencils were supplied later to fill in the lines.
“We’re going to hang your artwork with the Neiman show later,” Perera said. “We’re going to call it our ‘Halftime Show.’ ”
Summeria Jordan, 6, sketched herself playing soccer, while 7-year-old Armani Chambers portrayed herself as a cheerleader.
But Waylon seemed most touched by the experience. The 7-year-old was drawing himself wearing football gear when he realized how special this experience was. Tears filled his eyes.
“I get to do this,” he said.