Freedom of expression

Chilmark preschoolers collaborate with artist Colin Ruel on a fundraiser.


According to an article in The MV Times, the number of students at the Chilmark School has nearly doubled in 15 years. The increase in population has meant that the current preschool has been unable to meet the needs of the families and students in the community, and has had to turn people away. Where there is a will, there is a way, however, and a plan is in the works.
“We are in the middle of a multiyear effort to raise funds to build a dedicated home for our preschool on the Chilmark campus,” Virginia Barbatti, member of the Chilmark Preschool’s board of directors, said. “All of the fundraising we are doing for our new building is guided by our ethos as an organization.” The new school is slated for September 2025. No taxpayer money is being sought for the project’s $3.5 million cost. 40 percent of the funding is expected to come through grants with the remainder coming from private donations.
Given that part of the preschool’s philosophy is that children are competent, curious, resourceful, and creative, and the Island has a vast array of artists residing here, it’s no surprise that one of the ways the folks at Chilmark Preschool are raising funds is by selling art. Artists Colin Ruel and his wife, Nettie Kent, own the Ruel Gallery in Menemsha, and Ruel is contributing to the fundraiser by collaborating with the preschool kids to create and sell art. The goal of this collaboration is to raise $20,000 to put toward the new building.
“The idea for this was really Colin’s,” Anja May, director of the Chilmark Preschool, said. “His older child went here, and his younger child is currently a student here. This preschool is really special. It exemplifies a sense of belonging, community, human connection, and a real intentionality of goodness and simplicity. Families here feel passionately about how important this is, and they love, love, love this school.”
Indaia Whitcombe, whose daughters Flo and Josephine attend the preschool, is one of the community members who love the school and are excited about the collaboration with Ruel: “I love this project, because it is reflective of the collaborative spirit of the preschool, and just one example of a parent wanting to invest back into a program that has given so much and meant a lot to so many.”
As far as Ruel is concerned, working with the kids has been on his mind for some time. “I’ve been wanting to do something with the kids for a while now,” Ruel said. “So I thought it’d be cool to have them start a painting, and I’d add to it. We do this at home already.”
Having collaborated with kids of all ages on a variety of art projects over the years, I know firsthand that depending on a myriad of factors, challenges can sometimes arise. Is there enough space? If someone accidentally steps in paint and gallivants down the hallway, will there be ramifications? Will the kids lose interest after 15 minutes?
But Ruel did just fine. Not only because he had the trust, respect, and support of May, other staff members, parents, and volunteers, but because he believed in the kids, and came in with a plan. “I went in over the course of a couple of weeks,” he said. “We also talked about knowing when to stop. Kids paint so well, and they just want to keep going. They’re having so much fun. But sometimes work can get gray if it’s overworked, so we played red light, green light, and the kids learned when to stop.”
Another consideration artists have to make while collaborating with kids is how much of their own work they should incorporate into the art without overshadowing the kids’ talents. It took a little time, but Ruel was able to find the sweet spot, and the finished pieces reflect a wonderful blend of both Ruel’s and the kids’ work.
“I tried not to do too much over their work,” Ruel said. “I left the sky in many of them, and then I added the foreground. We created 22 paintings, and after working on many of them, I stopped trying to make the paintings work in a specific way, and went with the movement the kids created.”
May had the opportunity to watch the kids while they were working with Ruel. “We did some careful thinking about how we wanted to set up the space and experience,” May said. “We knew we really wanted to pull back and give integrity of creative expression to the children. And the children showed up so well. They listened, and they were very thoughtful and intentional in how they mixed the colors. They stuck with it. I was incredibly proud and inspired by what they created. They did amazing things.”
So enough about the adults. Let’s get to the VIPs. How did the kids feel about the creative venture? “I like that we could do whatever we want,” Ollie said. “Colin is really cool.” When asked if Ollie wants to be a professional artist when he grows up, he said, “Yes, I’m going to do air painting.” Haile Forte shared, “I like making it spread out, and I like when he [Ruel] brings special paints.” And Ruel’s son, Wyld, said, “I love when the painting just, like, keeps reacting to the paint.”
“Sometimes as an artist, you get stuck in a mode,” Ruel shared. “This project broke me out of it a bit. Kids are uninhibited, and I think a lot of artists want to get back to the freedom and looseness that kids naturally have. It was really fun. I’d like to do it again sometime.”

The collaborative artwork of Colin Ruel and the Chilmark Preschool kids is available for purchase, and will be on display at the Ruel Gallery in Menemsha on June 6, from 4 to 7 pm.


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