Art Immersion Camp Feeds The Mind, Body And Soul

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In the far corner of a makeshift art studio, Emily Watkins, 12, put the finishing touches on her handmade wire-framed marionette. For this project, she was prompted to make the puppet an alter ego of herself, so she made hers look evil.

Watkins is one of around 60 children — most of whom are from Nelsonville — participating in a free summer art camp called Circle Around the Square.

“If it weren’t for this camp, I’d be sitting on the couch at home,” Watkins said.

For many of the campers, the time spent on the square is much more than learning art. They say it’s a place where they feel better about themselves and develop second families.

“Here, you can just be yourself,” said Nova Barone, 13. “They love you like a parent, and we love each other like a brother and sister,” she said, as she nudged her buddy, Nathan Hayman. “There are no cliques here. Who cares if you’re a nerd?”

Hayman, 16, agreed.

“It definitely lets out your inner Picasso,” he said.

Barbara Campagnola started the camp nine years ago after she learned the school district didn’t offer art in the elementary and middle schools.

The program has grown over the years, but this year was one of many firsts. For the first time, the camp included a leadership class for former campers held earlier in the summer. In addition to those four graduates getting to intern during the camp, they also were given a scholarship to Hocking College, one of this year’s new partners.

Also for the first time, half the programming took place on the square in downtown Nelsonville while the other half was hosted on the campus of Hocking College.

While it’s grown over the years in participation and programming, the goals have remained the same — to provide children an opportunity to learn, create, accomplish and be recognized.

“We’ve found that you can teach kids to do just about anything if you motivate them from within,” Campagnola said. “That’s the key to getting them up in the morning and on the bus. They’re given an opportunity to express themselves.”

The campers start their day with breakfast at the First Presbyterian Church of Nelsonville. For the first time this year, Campagnola arranged for the camp to be an official summer feeding site for children. That means the United States Department of Agriculture will reimburse a portion of every meal she serves.

From there, the campers walked to their individual expression studios. One week the children built marionettes, another week they molded ceramic toad houses, still another they recreated masterpieces in the painting studio or made paper from scratch. All of the classes were lead by professional local artists.

“The way I’ve designed it, in the morning, they have to focus a lot,” Campagnola said. “After the morning session, they were given more time to blow it out.”

During the latter half of the morning, campers moved on to group activities. For some, that meant working on a video that included stop animation. Others moved their bodies in a dance improv studio.

Every day, campers worked at Hocking College in the kitchen with Chef Kathryn McGushin, who was more affectionately known as “Chef Katie.” There, using ingredients from the Chesterhill Produce Auction or picked earlier in the day from the church garden, the children prepared their own lunch.

As if that weren’t enough for one camp, the children also ran a food blog, where they learned about nutrition and social media etiquette.

After lunch, the campers romped around the college’s fitness center swimming, climbing the climbing wall or playing ping pong.

“We keep them busy every minute. They stagger home,” Campangola said with a laugh.

Campangola knows what the camp offers is important to the youth. She hears it every day in their stories or reads it in their essays. Some are happy stories of gaining self-confidence or making a friend. Others are not-so-happy, like the stories of dealing with struggles at home.

“I know for a fact that we’re changing lives. But I can say anything I want. That’s why we’re capturing data,” she said.

To better understand the impact, she’s arranged for a professional organization to analyze what the kids have learned and will compare her students to a control group that didn’t participate in the camp.

The camp, Campanola stressed, is a community effort. All told, it costs about $155,000 to run the program, she said, and she’s able to do that because of her long list of funders and partnering organizations.

Although the camp concluded on Friday, the public is invited to see the product of the campers’ hard work next week during Nelsonville’s Final Friday. All of the art work, including the video and a live dance performance, will be at Stuart’s Opera House.