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Art is tie that binds at Briscoe Elementary

COVID-19 means taking creativity to the students to keep them learning

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In this undated picture, Southtown arts pioneer Andy Benavides helps Briscoe Elementary School students understand how art stimulates the brain at his 1906 South Flores Art Complex as part of the SMART initiative. The program now continues online during the COVID-19 lockdown. Courtesy photo

An innovative Briscoe Elementary School art program shows COVID-19 may have temporarily shuttered classrooms, but it hasn’t stopped educators from reaching students in new ways.

The nonprofit SMART initiative — Supporting Multiple Arts Resources Together — partners artists with faculty and administrators at Briscoe to inspire students, despite campus closures mandated by officials to limit the spread of novel coronavirus.

Though Briscoe is an iconic South Side place of learning with roots going back to 1899, the curriculum has gone high-tech and transitioned online to keep students engaged.

“For us the arts are not special, they are integral, essential; they connect us,” said Principal Jennifer Emerson. “With this whole COVID-19 thing and the separation we feel, being able to stay connected and share with each other is incredible. In a time when everything feels uncertain, it calms us, and gives us a sense that we are still all there for each other.”

In 1998, artists Andy Benavides and the late Alberto Mijangos opened their 1906 South Flores Art Complex as a frame shop, gallery, studio and creative commons across the street from the San Antonio Independent School District campus.

Over the years, Benavides and his wife, Yvette, have brought together artists and art aficionados from five adjoining neighborhoods – Collins Garden, Lavaca, Lone Star, Roosevelt and King William – under the umbrella of the Southtown Arts District. The couple make their home in 1906.

They also celebrate Second Saturday Art Walks and other events, host visiting artists and foster creativity, which extends through the whole area.

Briscoe fourth-grade teacher Sarah Christal started working on taking advantage of the neighborhood’s artistic bounty almost 10 years ago.

“I had always felt like it was crazy that we didn’t have more of an art program, more of an outlet for creativity and emotional support for our students,” Christal said. “My husband, Chris, and I lived in Blue Star (Arts Complex), and we were good friends with a bunch of artists. I started talking to Andy and Yvette, who had always been so involved in the community.”

Yvette Benavides calls the program “unique.”

“It started with one class, and now we work with pre-K through fifth-grade classes, four weeks at a time, so that’s about 420-450 kids a year,” Benavides said. “We work with teachers to align the art curriculum with what all levels are learning academically. We built them a studio, a gallery; the kids come into our home. We teach them about neuroscience and the arts, from pre-K on up. We get asked to go into other schools, but with the Briscoe, it’s unique. I work with them every day.”

Three years ago, when Briscoe was becoming an International Baccalaureate school with an emphasis on the arts, Krista Powell was hired as its first full-time art teacher.

“Sarah Christal and Yvette and Andy were already years into the process, and it was so exciting,” Powell said.

Her students have done special projects, from professional-quality alcohol-ink drawings to an art exchange with a Pakistani school. At their first Art Night this spring, representatives from the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio Museum of Art, Blue Star Contemporary and Southwest School of Art brought activity booths where kids could create work to take home, and fifth-graders could sell some of their artwork to go toward scholarships.

Much more was planned, including completion of the first show for a momentous new project with SMART; the beMOCA – Briscoe Elementary Museum of Contemporary Art — located in one of the school’s portables. Only one other U.S. school, in Portland, Oregon, has a similar program.

While the physical creation is paused, the inspirational creativity keeps flowing.

“Andy and Yvette and I are constantly working on ways to keep connected,” she said.

SMART is now a prominent online resource link for the school, and the Benavides art duo have a YouTube channel to post Fun Fridays videos for Briscoe students. They have done virtual tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and more.

“We’re keeping them connected,” Powell said. Her Saturday Draw-Along Zoom meeting brings in students and sometimes family members, as well as other teachers, and she posts photos of kids’ work on her Instagram account to be shared.   

“Krista Powell is doing amazing things, and we are so fortunate to have Sarah Christal and Yvette and Andy,” Emerson said.

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