Volunteer resident artist Susan Mayfield works with Pre-K 4 SA West Education Center students for the Gracias San Antonio: Children Are Citizens Project to benefit The Children's Shelter.
Volunteer resident artist Susan Mayfield works with students at the Pre-K 4 SA West Education Center for the Gracias San Antonio: Children Are Citizens project to benefit The Children's Shelter. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

San Antonio’s 4-year-olds have something to say about their city, and the rest of the population will have an opportunity to see the results. The annual Pre-K 4 SA Gracias San Antonio: Children Are Citizens project teams students with artist volunteers to create artworks that reflect the children’s perspectives on their community.

The artworks – in multiple media including paintings, sculptures, and installation art –  are then auctioned to benefit a selected nonprofit organization that the students themselves have a chance to vote for, alongside their parents and teachers.

This year’s charity is The Children’s Shelter, which provides services to children affected by abuse and neglect. Past beneficiaries have included San Antonio Pets Alive! and Any Baby Can, which received a $5,000 check from the Gracias program last year.

Answering a call put out through social media, more than 50 artists have volunteered this year to work with 2,000 students in the Pre-K 4 SA program’s four area schools. The result will be 100 artworks priced in the $200-$1,000 range. The Mercury Project, a studio space in the Lone Star Arts District, will host the April exhibition and sale, said Larrisa Wilkinson, Pre-K 4 SA’s director of professional learning and program innovation, preceded by an online auction.

Students and staff also participate in the chosen nonprofit organization’s activities throughout the year, Wilkinson said, to infuse the process with volunteer spirit.

On the morning of March 7 at the Pre-K 4 SA West Education Center, artist and retired art teacher Susan Mayfield worked with the students of her daughter Jessica Patterson, a master teacher at the school, on a collage painting representing the River Walk.

Students were drawn to the rainbow of colored umbrellas on a restaurant’s outdoor patio, among photographs of the city decorating Patterson’s classroom.

One student’s mother works at that restaurant, Patterson said, and another recognized a “tall building” downtown where her mother works, providing additional personal connections for the children.

The class will visit the River Walk in the coming months on a field trip, Patterson said. Such “city explorations” are a planned part of the Gracias program, allowing glimpses of the city that students and their parents might otherwise not have regular chances to see.

The program is founded on the idea that civic engagement at a young age fosters future community participation by children who learn collaborative decision-making, volunteerism, and philanthropy, Wilkinson said.

“The whole impetus for the civic engagement initiative that we created” centered around the fact that the Pre-K 4 SA and Gracias programs are publicly funded, Wilkinson explained. In 2012, San Antonio voters approved a one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax for the program’s funding, which will come up for re-approval in 2020.

Its students “have a lot to say” about San Antonio, she said. “How do we bring that to life, how do we give them a platform to have their voice come to life in our city?”

An artwork made by Pre-K students for a previous year's Gracias San Antonio: Children Are Citizens Project decorates the lobby of the Pre-K 4 SA West Education Center.
An artwork made by Pre-K 4 SA students for a previous year’s Gracias San Antonio: Children Are Citizens project decorates the lobby of the program’s West Education Center. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

Another civically minded San Antonian is a self-professed fan of the Gracias project.

“Getting young children involved with art and the notion of helping others is a win-win,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the Rivard Report via text message, one day after primary voting concluded in Bexar County. “It develops creative thinking and a social conscience.”

Another goal of the program is to encourage voter participation, said spokeswoman Jill Byrd. The vote to choose a charitable organization to fund is deliberately held the day before November election days, she said, so children can share their experiences with their families to build awareness of important state and national elections.

Wilkinson said she hopes the project can expand next year. “Our goal is to make it citywide, using our district partners to make it a whole-city initiative,” she said.

For now, expect to see some snow-themed artworks in the April exhibition and auction, said Erin Burnett, Pre-K 4 SA’s assistant director of curriculum and instruction. December’s snowfall was “something they had never seen before,” she said of the program’s 4-year-olds.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...