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“One of the Best Days of the Year:” The Art of Writing Conference

On the first Monday in December, the Milwaukee Art Museum opens its doors to a passionate group of young people from the greater Milwaukee area. Dedicated educators and organizers prepare to greet more than 500 students in grades 3 through 12 who have come to be inspired by the thousands of works of art and express themselves through writing and drawing. This annual event is called the Art of Writing Young Authors and Artists Conference.

The beloved program was founded in 1988 by an accomplished and compassionate local teacher, John Hallagan, who has recently retired. Blossoming from Hallagan’s experience teaching a wide range of students, the program was created to bring together young people from many different schools and backgrounds who share a love of writing and art, and to give these students the opportunity to get their work published—and it has done just that. Since its founding, the Art of Writing program has published the work of more than 15,000 young authors and artists! The Milwaukee Art Museum is truly honored to have partnered with John Hallagan and his wife, Pat, for the past three decades.

A true labor of love, the Art of Writing Young Authors and Artists Conference has grown into a nine-month project, beginning with registration in September and culminating in a Publishing Party, held in May. With more than 500 students participating each year, this annual conference would not be possible without the fantastic group of teachers, volunteers, artists, and staff members, who are all dedicated to providing students with a one-of-a-kind experience. More than one hundred talented teachers receive lesson plans in advance to help guide students through their day-long experience in the Museum’s galleries. Pat Hallagan organizes the event and production of the book, along with a team of supportive individuals (Lynn Hesprich, Julie Paulie, and Joan Balistreri). John Hallagan develops the educational framework, supported with video production (Terry Kaldhusdal) and photography (Jean Hallagan). Art educator Jason VanRoo coordinates the groups of artists. And the Museum’s own education, art preparator, curatorial, and events teams collaborate to set up Museum spaces for teacher and student activities.

On the day of the conference, in December, teachers and students gather at the Museum—many, for the first time—to collaborate and learn. Groups visit Lubar Auditorium for writing and editing tips and techniques, and young people exchange stories and conversations as they work throughout the galleries. Bonding over art and, of course, a pizza lunch, students who may have arrived feeling nervous, leave with a sense of accomplishment and new friendships. Teachers and students have described the conference as “one of the best days of the year,” and they anxiously await the Publishing Party, where they will receive their copy of the Art of Writing book, featuring their own creative contributions.

Though we could not come together and celebrate at a Publishing Party this year, we wanted to send out a huge thank you to all who participated in the 2019–20 program—and give a sneak peek at some of the incredible work that is featured in this year’s Art of Writing book. First, we are sharing a written piece by Lily Wilkowski, a fifth-grade student at J. E. Jones Elementary School. Her short story was inspired by Raoul Dufy’s Red Orchestra.

I briskly walked into the dimly-lit performance venue. The Pabst Theater was even greater than I remembered! The amazingly breathtaking, huge area where the stunning performance was taking place took me aback. The stage was brightly lit in the sea of people that seemed to inch closer to the people on the stage with every passing second. I looked away from the amber colored, grand stage, which was only three sections away, to my godmother, Julie, who was in awe of every single person on the stage who were about to play one of the most amazing things Julie and I had ever heard. 

I frowned, and looked to the seat next to me. I whispered to Julie, “Where is Mom? Will she be here soon?” Her expression changed abruptly, and she frowned too.

“I’m not sure…” she whispered back.

The lights in the theater became dimmer, and I knew Mom wouldn’t be in the theater for the first act. In what seemed like hours, the show started. I gasped, feeling amazed. The sweet sounds of music echoed around me, and I felt my worries drift away. I closed my eyes and listened attentively to the perfect music being played right in front of me. The music sounded dream-like, as if I could drift off to sleep right then and there. Just as soon as it started, the first act ended.           

I saw Mom, and she walked up to us. She said, “Sorry I couldn’t get in sooner, there was no parking outside!”           

We laughed it off, and the second act started. I sat in the middle of the two of them, and watched each person beautifully pluck their strings and play their instruments. Soon enough, the show ended, and we were escorted out. We left the venue, excited for another performance in the future.

Raoul Dufy, Red Orchestra (Le concert rouge), 1946–49. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley, M1959.379. Photo by John R. Glembin. ©2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

We are also happy to share a few of the artworks created by students this year. Like the short story, each was inspired by a work in the Museum’s collection.

For more information on this program, visit the Art of Writing Young Authors and Artists Conferences website.

Sarah Ozurumba is the associate educator for school and teacher programs, in the education department. She develops and facilitates programming for school groups, teachers, and docents.

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