PAMELA COTANT For the State Journal
When Maria Schirmer DeWitt heard that a Madison organization was looking for ideas for summer camps and teachers, her thoughts turned to a way to combine her love of art and canoeing.
So one of the few ideas she proposed was an “art on the lake” camp, where the 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 told DeWitt.
So she was pleased when she received an enthusiastic response from Jenn Morey, 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 Morey’s response.
So the two of them took Schirmer DeWitt’s “paragraph idea” and planned a summer camp they eventually named Art and Canoeing. This was done in part through Schirmer Devitt’s connection to Rutabaga Paddlesports. Through the partnership, Rutabaga provided canoes, other equipment and staff to help paddle.
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The full-day, week-long camp, open to children ages 7 to 10, is just one of the summer arts camps offered by the Art + Literature Lab. It was based on Tenney Park Beach on Lake Mendota. The children would create some art there, and at other times they would do it while sitting in the canoe or at the place they paddled to.
Schirmer DeWitt, who earned a master’s degree in social work before returning to art and design school, said she came up with the idea while reminiscing about her childhood.
“I thought about what 10-year-old Maria would like to do,” she said. “I loved being outside. It was a time for me when I felt I could be myself in a different way. Another similar place for me was art.”
“Duck Lit Laboratory”
The seven children at the camp, which ended Friday, thought of themselves as ducks, emerging from their nest in Tenney Park every day, and came up with the name “Duck Light Lab,” Schirmer DeWitt said.
Campers one day paddled the Tenney Park Lagoon, walked to the Yahara River, and then canoed to Burroughs Park. On the last day, campers paddled across Lake Mendota to Union Memorial Terrace, where they wrote nature poems and created watercolor paintings. Then they paddled back and drew with chalk on the sidewalk near the beach canopy.
While campers were eventually able to swim in Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, Tenney Park Beach was closed at the start of camp due to poor water quality. This led to a discussion of the problem and chalk drawings depicting suggestions on how to care for the lake, or to improve the environment in general, or what the tourists were grateful for about the lakes.
Second-grader Charlie Parker’s drawing depicted a man who goes to bed wishing the lake would be clean, then wakes up to find that it has, as if by a wave of a magic wand.
Fifth-grader Aila Frederickson’s chalk drawing showed a red car and she wrote, “Stop the pollution, turn off the car.” According to her, this was done to encourage people to stop sitting in their cars.
“I tried to appreciate our resources because one time we had to make brushes from nature, which was really hard, but they worked really well,” said Eila about what she learned at the camp.
Ayla said she created her brush using grass for the bristles and a stick for the handle.
Art projects included making portable painting kits and then using scrapbooks to sketch in a “secret area,” where a tiny piece of land jutting into Lake Mendota is separated by trees and other vegetation. Bags were also made and decorated from old T-shirts.
One day they gathered wildflowers and other plants and formed teams to create a large mandala in the shape of a peace symbol with a heart inside. “To the world” was written in wildflowers under it on the grass.
On the day of making papier-mâché masks, the campers talked about things that someone 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 seeing his friends is what he enjoys most about camp.
Third-grader Allison Goosey suggested that the campers make gifts for each other. They were either found objects, snacks, or things they created, such as poems or origami made by sixth-grader Gabriel Zarate Mitidieri. Allison brought plastic Easter eggs to hide the presents. She saw it as a way to take the traditional egg hunt and “elevate it a little bit,” she said.
Schirmer DeWitt works as a Lead Artist for Developing Artist Murals and Alliances and was a resident artist at Goodman Library South Madison as part of the Bubbler Program. She said one of the most enjoyable aspects of the camp was how the campers got to know and appreciate each other.
“The kids made it really special. There are definitely things I would change and do differently, and there were a lot of things I learned,” she said. “It looks pretty magical that it happened.”