Jersee Kepler is the type of gal that didn't mind getting her hands dirty at school — and for this lesson, her teacher was happy to oblige.
The afternoon science lesson was unusual: It was taught by an artist, Rapid City-based Sue Sasso, the second of her six lessons in Soren Sturlaugson's fifth-grade class at Canyon Lake Elementary School.
This one was to learn about form and matter. The pupils' task: to use small wooden mallets to smash down Hematite — red stone — and mix it with water to make paint for their very own cave paintings on a small pieces of limestone.
And, the kids ate it up, with giggles and smiles as they took the powder they created, mixed it into paint and applied it to their rocks. "We're working like cavemen," said Kepler, 10, with a smile.
Sasso's presence in the classroom was part of the Teaching Artist Program (TAP), a nearly two-year-old initiative and collaboration among the Rapid City Arts Council, Rapid City Schools and the The Sculpture Project, headed by artist Masayuki Nagase at Main Street Square.
Nagase secured additional money through a grant that the program uses to fund the purchase of accessible, affordable materials the children use. Artist-developed lesson plans are given to teachers to use for future classes.
His personal goal, he said, particularly was to give lower-income elementary school children the opportunity to dabble in the visual arts.
Each lesson has to have an academic foundation — in this case, that included the science behind art in the components of paint — but for the kids, the main draw was the fun.
"We usually don't get this messy. For me, it's messy," said Ella Malcomb, 10. "This is an opportunity for us ... to do what I love to do."
Sturlaugson, 31, son of former Central High School teacher and tennis coach, Scott Sturlaugson, once studied art for two years at Minnesota State University, and said he wanted every opportunity to bring art influences into his classroom.
He said he appreciated that his students were learning scientific concepts while exercising their creative sides.
"The opportunity to create is really crucial for these kids," he said. "Every one of the students is an artist."
Having such tangible, hands-on lessons as this brought high achievers and strugglers together. It's something that everyone can do well and boosts confidence, he said.
The TAP Program is in five classrooms in Rapid City Elementary Schools, said Naomi Even-Aberle, the program's liaison coordinator at the Dahl Arts Center. She said the program may expand to additional schools in January.
The program, Even-Aberle said, reaches out to elementary school principals who might be receptive to having art-based lessons in the classroom. Then the principals suggest teachers, like Sturlaugson, who are eager to jump on board with the idea.
Even-Aberle said its goals are exactly as he said: to encourage the children at all academic levels, and for everyone to have a great time.
"Arts in general is a great equalizer," she said. "Children learn by doing, and art is an embodiment of that physical action of doing. The ability to certainly think about properties, components that kids can, then see it mimicked."
Even-Aberle said most times the artists get as much out of it as the students, feeding off their good energy and positive enthusiasm.
That is a point Sasso, who studied geology for a bit at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, embraced.
"I just thought it would be fun. And it was," she said. "I think for me, I just love to see how excited they get and hope I am encouraging them to be more creative as artists."