GARDINER — An after school art program hosted by college students aims to give aspiring artists from Gardiner Area High School a chance to express themselves creatively out of the classroom and make up for the reduced opportunities in class.

Since September, three University of Maine at Augusta students have been working with area high school students at Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center four days a week on art projects, providing supplies and mentoring.

Karen Adrienne, the UMA professor in charge of the program, said she started it because she saw a need for more artistic opportunities for high schoolers, especially for students looking for after school activities. Recent budget cuts have meant fewer art teachers and art classes statewide, but in Gardiner’s case, the district opted to not fill a half-time position this year when a teacher retired because not enough students signed up for art classes.

Another goal of the after school program is to allow high school students to connect with each other and with the college students to help develop more artistic-minded people in the community, Adrienne said.

“I think they’re a valuable asset and sometimes they don’t get enough support,” she said of the high school students. “They’re our future artists and future community members and leaders. Mentoring them is a really important component to building a stronger community.”

One of those students, Corey Boynton, a freshman from Gardiner, said he likes his art class at school but he gets more freedom in the after school program.

On Wednesday, the students were making jack-o-lanterns with the help of power tools — an activity the UMA interns called “extreme pumpkin carving.”

Boynton, 14, carved the face of a character from a Disney channel cartoon into his pumpkin, but he said a large chunk of his time at the program has been spent on a comic strip he’s planning to submit to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — a prestigious art and writing contest for middle and high school students.

“I really like just having a lot of help on art and a lot of the supplies that I usually don’t get to have at my house,” he said.

The program is funded by a $4,000 grant from the Office of the President at UMA. It was awarded this year as part of the Presidential Enrollment Mini-Grant Competition, which seeks proposals to support student recruitment, engagement and retention. UMA sets aside $50,000 each year for the grants.

Besides helping high school students, the after school program also provides teaching experience for college students in the UMA art program who are each getting $1,000 as a paid internship.

Wenda Fisher, one of the interns, said she wanted to take part to give back to the community for the opportunities she had when she was younger. Fisher, 39, of Appleton, said after school art programs helped her stay out of trouble as a kid.

“There are kids that need this after school and revel in it,” she said.

The interns said from two to a dozen students attend each session, but they’re hoping it grows in popularity. The last session will be held Dec. 6, when the students will show off their work during the Gardiner Art Walk.

Adrienne and the students are seeking grant funding to continue the program next year.

The last remaining art teacher at Gardiner Area High School, Meghann Gipson, is excited about the program and hopes it will continue after this year.

Gipson said she’s also trying to build the high school art program back up because it’s been scaled back in recent years. There’s is no longer any upper-level programs, something Gipson would like to see changed.

She said she thinks it’s important to challenge kids to express themselves creatively because jobs increasingly require creative thinking and problem solving.

But in order to secure more funding for art classes and programs, parents and community members need to tell the school board and other decision makers about the importance of such programs, Gipson said.

“I think if it’s something the community values, it will happen,” she said.

Paul Koenig — 207-621-5663[email protected]Twitter: @paul_koenig

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