By Liesa Manuel
Megan Hallett started her nonprofit, Framework Arts, in 2014 as a “projects-based nonprofit” to “show other people’s stories.” She focuses her efforts on the west side of Salt Lake City because, as she puts it, “Not all arts and culture organizations have worked as hard as they could have on the west side.”
Hallett has no staff and enjoys the flexibility she can maintain with a small-scale operation. Flexibility must be part of the reason this former coordinator of the Children and Family Program for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts is thriving as a teacher of elementary school children, a teacher of art teachers pursuing master’s degrees at the University of Utah, and an organizer of multiple family-focused art projects to benefit her own school and the wider community.
Hallett works full-time as the K-6 art teacher at Escalante Elementary School in Westpointe and loves her job. She interacts with every child in the school, and after seven years in the same school, she has developed strong bonds with many of the children. Through Framework Arts, Hallett has become more than a school-day presence in the lives of many of her students. She has shaped a project – the Family Art Studio – to address her special take on the needs of her west-side school.
Parental involvement in a child's school life is recognized as a strong contributor to academic success, explains Hallett, and because the west side of Salt Lake City has a concentration of the common barriers to that engagement, such as language and time constraints, many parents may feel a sense of alienation. Perhaps others feel awkward because they have had limited or negative school experiences themselves. Over the past three years the Family Arts Project has welcomed all interested members of an Escalante Elementary household to attend a series of six to eight two-hour evening meetings once a week.
Dinner is served to a mix of generations, and arrangements are made in advance for interpreters to attend as needed. (Sometimes it is necessary to use grant money to pay an interpreter, but often, a PTA parent will volunteer.) Each series averages about 30 people per night. Provisions are also made to accommodate very small children.
Typically, a family is asked to create a “picture portrait without a person in the portrait.” Family groups work together at Escalante to create 'books' of art in which each week a page answers a given question related to the family in the form of an illustration. Using a theme as a prompt, the picture answers are created as family members interview each other. Working in a school setting is important – barriers are worn away as everyone feels welcome.
Hallett wants more than art appreciation for families at Escalante. Yet, that is part of the package. The evenings begin with Hallett’s presentation of visual art that fits her project theme. Recent topics have been “Movement and Immigration” and “Identity.” The purpose of the presentation is to broaden understanding – copying is discouraged. As the teacher says, “That’s not the way I’m interested in teaching,” because it is a “disservice to reproduce someone else’s work.”
The projects have led to “beautiful artwork,” says Hallett. The results have not only delighted the teacher, but prompted Escalante administrators to support efforts to invite families from other elementary schools in the area to participate.
The Family Art Project is the main, but not the sole project of Framework Arts. As a non-profit, Framework Arts has also funded and presented art and craft projects at the Day Riverside Library and the Sorenson Unity Center, and the Main Salt Lake City Library in downtown Salt Lake.