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Arts camp in session on Sheldon Jackson campus

SITKA, ALASKA
When Sheldon Jackson College closed in 2007, boards went up on the windows, moss built up on the rooftops, and the buildings, well, they sat and waited for a new class of students who never showed up. For four years, campus was silent.

But this summer, the students are back. They’re a little shorter than before, but they’re back.

About 230 middle school students are walking among the 19 buildings now owned by the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which took over the campus earlier this year. We’re visiting on the first day of camp, as they find their way to dorms and classrooms refurbished by an army of volunteers over the last four months.

It took four months, 400 people and 13,000 hours of volunteer labor to get it looking like this. And while there’s still a long way to go, camp director Roger Schmidt says the students took a shine to the campus immediately.

“One spot, you’ve got three kids playing their instruments in this gazebo,” Schmidt said. “I go up a little further there’s a kid with a camera taking pictures of pansies that one of our volunteers put in this flower bed, then you’ve got two girls painting on the other lawn. And camp hasn’t even started. It’s like, this is just too much. It’s just great. This is the Yaw Art Center …”

At the beginning of the year, the Yaw building was a long way from usable. But now, its classrooms are open and brightly lit. In one, students experiment with water colors. Across the hall, an old closet has been turned into a darkroom for photography, complete with one of those rotating doors that keeps the light out. (door noise) Yeah, there it is. The animation class is meeting down the hall, and just a little further down is the electronic music class, where students are sitting at workstations with computers and piano keyboards.

Andrew Krahn is the teacher. It’s his fourth year at the camp. He says the new space makes a big difference.

“It’s lovely to see a place that’s more open, where students can congregate,” Krahn said. “Their dorms are closer to their classrooms. Everything just feels like a solid campus.”

Krahn says he like returning to camp each year for many reasons. Partly it’s the weather, much cooler than the summertime temperatures in his hometown of Boston, “and it’s the opportunity to help kids come into their own,” he said. “In terms of middle school and high school, I think that’s where the most necessary guidance occurs.”

And that, says Schmidt, is a theme here: not just excellence in whatever art form is being taught, but development of the student as a person. It’s repeated in classroom after classroom. In jazz, for example, they’re working on musical improvisation, and therefore, they’re also working on confidence. Teacher Bob Athayde is telling a story about Louis Armstrong:

“In the next song he takes a solo, and they make fun of him because his clothes were baggy and he had a top hat. He plays a solo, and the band all turned like, ‘My gosh, we’ve never heard anything like this.’ The next day in the rehearsal all the guys came back in baggy clothes and top hats. Because this was the best soloist they’ve ever heard. Someone may say you’re far out, or what you’re playing is weird. Then you just go to the next person. Oh you don’t like it? OK, I’ll play it for you. You don’t like it? OK… And ultimately, guess what? I play for me.”

Schmidt says stories like that are important parts of the curriculum here.

“You know, one of the biggest issues we struggle with when we’re that age or any age is, ‘Who are we, and how do we fit with other people?’” he said. “It doesn’t matter what class I walk into. I see a group of kids learning how to work together and being asked to confront really big, important and fun issues. Or, I guess, big issues in a fun way, that gets them thinking ‘Wow, we should think about this.’ It’s just a really efficient way to build good humans, I think, the arts are.”

The kids talk in slightly different terms about it. They describe camp as fun, and say they enjoy the new surroundings.

Barae Hirsch will celebrate her 12th birthday at camp. It’s her second year here, and she says there are a few issues – including a shower that’s a bit on the cold side – but that she can see the potential.

“It’s not quite all fixed up yet. I’m not complaining – it’s good – but I think it’ll be even better next year,” Hirsch said. “It’ll be more time, and more things perfected.”

Schmidt says the camp has years of work ahead of it in order to get the Sheldon Jackson campus how they want it. But he also says the campus is a lot further along than he thought it would be.

Schmidt says he was “shocked” at the number of people who turned out to help fix up the campus.

“I didn’t picture this type of involvement from the community,” he said. “That’s something nobody can plan for. It was amazing. It was armies of workers coming on the weekends, during the week. I was completely surprised – I’m still completely surprised – by the amount of caring and interest in seeing this place put back together again. It’s like Humpty Dumpty.”

Except this time the idea that Humpty Dumpty might be put back together again is, um, no yolk. (Sorry.)
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