By: Rachel Badders
It is a Friday afternoon and the temperature reads less than scorching and a slight breeze is rustling the trees, causing some leaves to prematurely fall. At South Terrace Apartments, kids at Waco Arts Initiative will be searching through the scattered leaves to use in today’s class.
“Raise your hand if you can hear me,” Grace Ladd, director of WAI, says in a firm voice. She is trying to get 13 rowdy kids to stand in a line before they enter the building.
“What is one of the expectations at Waco Arts?” she asks.
“Can someone please tell me what one of our expectations is?” she repeats, this time with a little more volume.
“Follow directions and stay focused,” someone shouts.
The kids scramble through the doorway, and the empty apartment immediately comes to life. The art lesson is first on the agenda, and they are told to take a seat. Some run to plastic tables against the walls, others find a space on the paint-stained floor.
The room is filled with kids of different ages, races and backgrounds. They could be at home playing video games, but they are here, ready to learn about contour lines. Their smiling faces stand out against the backdrop of colorful artwork on the walls. One thing is certain: They are all thrilled to be here.
WAI began in 2006, when Ladd enlisted two of her friends, also Baylor graduates, to do something different. They were sick of “Baylor-ness” and wanted to reach out to the Waco community in a way that would be fulfilling. They started going to Kate Ross Homes, a local government housing project, to hang out with kids once a week. They built relationships with several families there, and eventually started going to South Terrace Apartments.
“We kind of thought we could handle anything,” Ladd admits, “but there were only three of us. We started to get worn out because of the lack of structure.”
They wanted to spend “meaningful time” with the kids, so Ladd began to do research. She learned that art wasn’t being taught in the kids’ schools, and that an art program could improve their grades in reading, math and science. She started to look for volunteers, and by August 2008, Waco Arts Initiative was formed.
Wade Mackey, one of the first volunteers, describes their first semester as “complete chaos.”
“We would have tons of kids, a lot of them too young to do anything. At this point, none of them knew Grace and none of them knew me,” Mackey says. “We would frequently only have three to five to handle somewhere between 15 and 30 kids. They didn’t listen to us; they didn’t have any respect for us. We couldn’t get them to do anything.”
He volunteered with the program until 2009, when he graduated from Baylor and moved to Kenya. Upon his return in January 2010, Mackey says he was floored by how far the program had come. After Ladd had a year and a half to build relationships, she was able to garner respect from both the kids and parents. He believes the improvement was mostly her consistency.
“Consistency is the only way to earn trust and respect, and Grace has been very consistent,” he explains. “The kids know she is going to be there two days a week. She’s going to be happy to see them, and she’s going to love on them.”
Throughout the afternoon at South Terrace, it becomes evident that this respect is sometimes hard to come by. As Elle Wildhagen, WAI intern, tries to teach about contour lines, she struggles to keep the attention of all 13 students. Ladd persistently asks them to be quiet, but when they continue to talk, she refuses to tolerate it.
“Did you get a haircut?” a girl asks Wildhagen, interrupting her mid-sentence.
“That is not the focus right now,” Ladd patiently reminds her.
Out of nowhere, loud music starts playing from a cell phone. Ladd glides over to the perpetrator and reaches out her hand. He swiftly makes the phone disappear, so she simply tells him to turn it off.
Wildhagen resumes the lesson, but her voice is eventually drowned out.
“Can everyone listen to me, please?” Wildhagen pleads.
Coming to her aid, Ladd interjects, “Hey guys, I can tell you right now, if y’all keep taking, we are not going to get a snack. Everyone needs to be paying attention to Elle.”
“I thought her name was Haley…”
“Her name is Elle. And you are going to pay attention to her, OK?”
Ladd graduated from Baylor in 2009 with a degree in philosophy. She is from Dallas but is living in Waco, primarily for WAI. Ultimately, she would like to go to graduate school for art administration, but as of now, she spends her days working in the Baylor Service-Learning Office.
At first glance, her bright, blue eyes and eclectic style are what stand out the most about her. Her sandy hair has a natural wave and freckles sprinkle her fair complexion. With a petite frame and honest smile, she appears younger than her 24 years. After one conversation, her spunky personality and gentle nature shines through, and if it involves WAI, her passion for art and love for kids is revealed.
While Grace didn’t study to become an artist, she was clearly gifted with the creativity of one. Evidence of this is shown throughout the South Terrace apartment, where some of her artwork is displayed alongside philosophic insights.
Four pieces of butcher paper cover one wall from floor to ceiling. All of the tan pieces are bare, except for one. It illustrates what appears to be a life-sized tribal princess, fully clad in a feather skirt, gold headdress and WAI T-shirt. She is labeled like a diagram, with arrows matching the words to respective body parts.
“I am an intricate individual, with different tones, pigments and texture,” describes her multicolored skin.
“I can identify most with my anxious face, but I want to be free!” points to her abstract expression. Near her head, the princess’s identity is revealed.
“Grace,” it reads, “I am a unique shape with short legs that like to dance and old-lady hands that like to paint and plant. I like my hair.”
Several other pieces of her artwork are posted around the self-portrait. One is a painting of an elderly man in sunglasses, who, like a modern-day messiah, is wearing a halo over his toboggan. He is accompanied by the quote, “All humanity starts from the same breath, has the same opportunity for wholeness, for birth, for death and then birth again.”
On the back wall of the apartment, a cluttered bulletin board hangs below a sea of small handprints. It displays various quotes and prints, including a photograph of author Ralph Ellison.
“Cultural relevance is something that I would definitely say we strive to implement into our curriculum,” Ladd states. She believes it is important to look at the history of an artist to “be in communion with the people who have come before us.” In one of their recent classes, the kids listened to a Martin Luther King Jr. speech and came up with art projects that reflect how it made them feel. Later on, Baylor art students depicted the kids’ ideas on large murals.
Waco Arts Initiative stresses creativity and expression in art. Ladd stresses that it is much more than just a time to do arts and crafts. She defines art as a process that requires talent, creativity and innovation. “It’s concept combined with skill,” she said. She believes it’s important for the kids to understand the process that goes into art, as well as the processes that go into all aspects of life.
“We can do a craft, and they can take it home, sure. But what makes us unique is that this is a process. Every day counts. So if they miss a day, we understand, but it’s also going to be something that they want to come back to each time, because it builds on itself,” she explains.
Another important aspect of art is quality, which is why Ladd has Baylor art students teach the lessons at WAI. She believes that every person is an artist in some way, because we all create. But even though she considers herself to be artistic, she doesn’t feel qualified to train the kids. Her philosophy is that art is a way for both the teacher and student to get out of his or her own world, and that can be transformative.
When artists volunteer their time and talent to teach at WAI, they are creating an experience that many of the kids would not otherwise have. Since it is not taught in their schools, the program provides their only resources to discover art. With these resources, they are able to express themselves in an environment where social stigmas don’t exist.
“We don’t believe [our kids] are disadvantaged in that their economic state defines them. Even though it is an aspect of them, it’s important to realize that they deserve more than to be pitied. And we’ve seen that [doing so] is empowering for them,” Ladd said.
In Waco, poverty is a common issue. Some in society have accepted the belief that children born into poverty have virtually no way out. And statistics, unfortunately, back up that belief. One of the key ways to address the problem, though, is to try to bridge the gap.
Art gets kids to be innovators, Ladd said. When they are expressing themselves artistically, they are using their imaginations and thinking ahead. With art, they are able to envision themselves potentially out of poverty.
One of things WAI does to bridge the gap is collaboration with other local nonprofits.
Art itself is not what is transformative, Ladd said, but art is a way to access something inside of yourself and express that which otherwise wouldn’t have been engaged.
“No person is greater than the need of a higher power. Every person is in need of grace, and I think art helps us realize that,” she explains. “There is an ache within all of humanity to grasp something beyond ourselves and beyond our own understanding. I think art is a means to reach that thing that we ache for.”