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Sculpting minds: Paris Gibson Square educators help unlock creative ways to solve problems

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From the minute you wake up in the morning, to the time you go to sleep, you’re dependent on the artists, designers and architects of the world to maintain your standard of living.

 Docent Ruth Franklin teaching a group of Great Falls Public Schools 3rd grade students about works of art in the galleries at The Square.
Docent Ruth Franklin teaching a group of Great Falls Public Schools 3rd grade students about works of art in the galleries at The Square.

Be it the alarm clock you use to wake up, the razor you use to shave, the pillow you sleep on, the clothes you wear, the car you drive to work, and your workplace itself – all of these necessities came from the creative minds of talented artists, designers or architects we all too often take for granted. Whether you know it or not, art and creativity impacts the way you live every day.

For example, if you rely on a vehicle, you couldn’t get to your job because without the artist who sculpted the original model of your car out of clay, the entire thing would not exist.

Or, consider the iPhone. You surely wouldn’t have the ability to check your latest Facebook notifications because nobody designed the way they would appear on your screen.

The sooner you can realize that art is the steak nourishing your success instead of that sugary piece of cake you eat after your vegetables, the faster you can start opening the possibilities of what you can achieve as a creative thinker.

Enter Jeff Kuratnick, a professional artist and educator who presents a simple idea behind the question “where’s the real value in art, and what does it mean to us?”

Jeff Kuratnick firing the G. Angela & Richard Nagengast Memorial Wood Kiln at The Square.
Jeff Kuratnick firing the G. Angela & Richard Nagengast Memorial Wood Kiln at The Square.

Kuratnick is on a mission to help spread that idea to children and adults across the area as the Curator of Education at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art. After a national search, he came to Great Falls in 2012 from Scranton, Pa., where he was the assistant educator at the Everhart Museum. He graduated from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a degree in K-12 Art Education and has taught thousands of students since then in public schools, museums, art centers and universities in Pennsylvania, Idaho and Montana.

“Brain building through creative practice is the nucleus of the museum’s education department.” Kuratnick said.

Both he and the instructors on staff not only work to help people become better artists, but also “to equip students of all ages with the tools necessary to think creatively and build socio-emotional resiliency in daily life.”

Kuratnick said he’s a big believer in changing the way people think through learning art.

“The core educational concept at The Square is to develop critical thought. Literally, to teach people how to think about their life and how to think about things creatively. When you build that kind of skill set it not only works with art, but it works for all decisions in your life, as well.”

When Kuratnick started a little over three years ago at the museum, he said he had to make some big changes while keeping what worked from the past directors. Ultimately he made it a goal to place a renewed sense of value to the classes, build upon ways to foster a creative community, and show people how to think in ways that go beyond normal boundaries of what’s possible in both life and art.

When it comes to teaching children, Kuratnick said it’s especially crucial around the age of 7 because multiple studies show how the brain starts shifting toward a more logical thought pattern – and away from – the natural gift of creative thought and intuition that everyone is born with.

“You can see it in children’s art. Kids start drawing houses, landscapes, and people around this age – what is visible in the logical world,” he said. “The brain begins to change here; creative thought begins to take more of a back seat. Unless educators intervene, maintaining a creative brain is harder to accomplish as we age. You won’t learn that in many places but it’s the truth.”

Kuratnick’s knowledge on this topic comes from his former supervisor and mentor during their tenure at the Everhart Museum, Aleta Wynn Yarrow, the only early childhood art specialist in both Pennsylvania and New York.

Aleta Wynn Yarrow
Aleta Wynn Yarrow

Yarrow has pioneered approaches to art-making for young children based on brain research.

“I was very fortunate to work with such a beautiful mind because she taught me everything I know when it comes to art education related to children and beyond,” Kuratnick said, “Which is a key demographic in classes at Paris Gibson Square. Young children are much more creative than adults, and they’re able to think outside that box naturally,” he said. “For the younger set, art is more a form of storytelling rather than an activity focused on a finished product.”

During his tenure at Paris Gibson, Kuratnick has led a team of professional docents (tour guides), and art educators in serving thousands of students from nearly every walk of life in Northcentral Montana and beyond.

“Offering professional educational opportunities at the museum has been our top priority and the increase in numbers of students both new and returning proves that the public has a need for art education in this region,” he said. “It all goes back to the program’s integrity. We’re not a babysitting service, we’re here to educate.”

He added that he’s made sure that there’s a standard of quality that each of the 20 to 25 quarterly classes meet. Part of meeting that baseline is hiring professionals who know how to impact students from a variety of backgrounds.

Kuratnick maintains a high standard for educational programming which gives students the opportunity to work with professional artists and educators like Rachel Kaiser, BJ Buckley, Tess Jacobs and Judy Ericksen among others.

“These women combined have a total of nearly 140 years of experience in arts and education,” he said. “I want to hire the best, and the best is what this museum has.”

The museum’s Ceramic Arts Studio is the region’s largest professional pottery & sculpture facility.
The museum’s Ceramic Arts Studio is the region’s largest professional pottery & sculpture facility.

In addition Kuratnick has taken a particular interest in training future artists and educators through both ceramics and education internships.

Over the past three years, students and recent college graduates have come from schools in Montana, Washington, Idaho, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania to complete internships.

After training at Paris Gibson, three of those interns have gained either full-time public school or private sector employment. Kuratnick said the fact that these students have gained the experience to kick start their employment in the field has a direct reflection on the education department at The Square.

Core educational programming at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art includes Early Explorers (pre-K), K to 8th Grade Courses, Video Game Design, Ceramic Arts Program, Adult Education, Special Needs Education, Tai Chi, 60+ Adult Classes, Docent Tour Program and the Artists in Residence Program in partnership with the Great Falls Public Schools.

“The greatest gift any teacher could give their students is the ability to teach themselves,” Kuratnick said. “That’s what the arts do, and that’s what Paris Gibson Square Museum or Art has the privilege to do.”

For more information on both Kuratnick and the museum, visit jeffkuratnick.weebly.com or the Square’s site.

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