Hands releasing butterflies, a bud blooming into a full rose or flowers growing out of a skull. These are some of the visions students at Mitchell Middle School (MMS) use to express what is on their mind through drawings and sketchings. Renee Berg has been an art teacher for the Mitchell School District for 32 years, grooming generations of artists. One of her eighth-grade students is the son of Clark Martinek, whom she taught as a junior at Mitchell High School before he went on to become a professional blacksmith and sculptor, featured at last year's Sioux Falls Art Walk.
"Drex definitely has his father's talents and is a beautiful artist. His strengths are in drawing and sketching," Berg said.
The Midwest is generally very supportive of the fine arts, believes Berg, while many elementary schools across the United States no longer offer art electives.
"It makes me proud that our school does. I think it weaves in to the next level and the art programs that are offered to the kids later in high school and college. Here in Mitchell we are lucky to have a theater in town and a movie theater. Arts are promoted all over and parents are very involved, which I think has a lot to do with the interest I see in our children," Berg said.
Expressing ideas, working as a team and learning how to communicate visually as well as texturally is at the forefront of her curriculum.
"We combine both and write a lot in the visual arts class. It's communication, regardless if it's with words, symbols or art," Berg said.
"But first comes planning and thinking before my kids are ready for the big project."
This semester the students are learning the Zentangle Method, which is an easy-to-learn, relaxing and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns. The patterns are called tangles, and light values are matched against medium values, medium values against dark values.
"I find it to be fun and enjoy it more than building things. I'm not good at computers, so I chose graphic and visual art," student Allison Ducheneaux said.
The point of the fall assignment is to spend some time learning modified, contour drawing in which the young artists only look at the paper 10 percent of the time and at the object 90 percent of the time. Before beginning the artwork students gather around the teacher's desk to discuss their ideas. Some kids were trying to communicate different topics like homelessness or grabbing and releasing items with their hands. Another student wanted to show the subject of breaking out, because he felt like children in middle school are put into a box and had to behave a certain way; in his drawing he tried to express how he could break out of that expectation.
The annual budget for the visual arts elective has not changed much over the last three decades and remains at $5,000, which is more than enough to purchase materials like paint, pencils and brushes, confirmed Berg. At times the students receive a visit from professional artists.
"Usually I write a grant for those visits and artists come in to present in front of the class. We had a glow-in-the-dark artist come in once and did black-light art, which was a lot of fun. Afterwards we displayed our art in the school's hallway," Berg said.
The students of MMS have swept countless awards at the annual State Fair, where they have taken first place for 14 consecutive years.