Renown employee Nancy Podewils shares the gift of expression with elementary students.
One memorable day a couple of years ago during Art Angels, a group that brings watercolor art teaching and supplies to elementary school students in Washoe County, volunteer Nancy Podewils was painting with the students when she was struck by one who was more excited than the others. He was enjoying the color mixing experience so much that he wrote a poem on the back of his painting, showed it to the class and also gave feedback to his classmates.
As it happens, he was autistic and his teacher said he had barely spoken in class before the Art Angels arrived.
“He was so engaged, and the teacher told me it was one of the best experiences of her teaching career,” says Nancy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and an Outpatient Therapist with Renown Behavioral Health. “There’s so much potential for expression in art, but many children don’t have this opportunity for self-expression. Art Angels was created to fill some of that void.”
Nancy loved art growing up but only dabbled in it as an adult. In 2005, she joined the Sierra Watercolor Society and was taking classes there when she heard about Art Angels. She began volunteering, eventually coordinating the program, and leading classroom work while working on funding sources to keep the program going.
The Art Angels – Nancy and her team of four volunteers – go to third and fourth grade elementary classrooms in Washoe County such as Brown, Libby Booth and Bernice Matthews. They also offer two free children’s workshops a year at the Wilbur D. May Museum and one at the Reno Public Library’s downtown branch.
Bringing all the supplies the children need, the volunteers go to two or three classrooms a month throughout the school year and work with about 20 to 30 children. Since the program’s volunteer group is small, it offers the children excellent group attention. Additionally, the children’s age ranges are ideal for building a love of art expression.
Nancy says art is important in bringing out children’s creativity and self-expression, as well as some thinking processes that still need development. The benefits can also extend to other parts of a child’s education. As an example, some have used the painting time to illustrate something they’ve read from a book.
“It’s not only to give kids a place to have fun, but to also help those kids who may not be as academically successful, to give them a sense of accomplishment,” Nancy adds.
Nancy is attuned to social behaviors, and she’s seen a lot of progress during the Art Angels visits. She says at first many children don’t want to show their paintings to everyone in the class, but some say it’s their favorite part of the afternoon once they do present their art to everyone.
Teachers that have had an Art Angels visit have been asking for a return visit almost as soon as it’s over.
“I’ve had teachers tell me that they’ve never seen their class so focused and quiet,” Nancy says. “They were more attentive, more task-oriented, than sometimes they were previously. Following that experience, they are sometimes asking to do art during their free time, which is certainly one of our goals. We want kids to get excited about art as a lifelong enjoyment, both to see art and to create it.”
It’s seeing that love of art, for all of its benefits, that makes Nancy most content to keep volunteering for the Art Angels.
“Most watercolor supplies are pretty inexpensive, so the kids can ask their parents for watercolors for Christmas or a birthday. They can continue to express themselves and discover things about art. It’s a neat outlet for anyone, and it’s such a privilege for me to keep this going.”
Nancy is just one of the volunteers from the watercolor society that donates their time and art. Other volunteers their time to the Art at the Bedside program at Renown where patients work with the volunteers to create a piece of art that will go home with them when they are discharged.
Nancy is seeking more volunteers and funding sources for the Art Angels program, but it’s also clear that this is more than just volunteer time for Nancy – she is visibly thrilled every time she talks about the program.
“I love working with kids. When you see that ‘light bulb’ turn on as you talk to them, it’s really exciting,” she says.