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Roving Art Teacher Brings Creativity to Isolated Students

Jennifer Williams has traveled the rural Northwest in her van full of inspiration

Jennifer Williams
Andy Anderson

Art teacher ​Jennifer Foreman de Grassi Williams, 75, has seen the positive impact that paint, color, clay and creativity can have on young people. Forty-five years ago, Williams dreamed up a way to bring art to students through a mobile school she dubbed Project Van Go. She’s been delivering mobile art lessons by van to rural schools throughout Idaho and into Nevada ever since. In 2016, Williams was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

Jennifer Foreman de Grassi Williams: When I first started working as an art teacher, in 1972, my class was where they put the kids no one knew what to do with: the ones with Mohawks or tattoos, the ones who were sleeping in their cars. Sometimes the art room was where we did art. Other times it was where we figured out their lives. ​

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​For many years I lived in rural Idaho, and a lot of my students came from towns an hour or more away. A few had attended a one-room schoolhouse in a tiny place called Prairie, where there was no art teacher, no supplies. And these kids asked me if we could bring art to the younger kids in their town. So, I arranged to take a day off, put my students in my van, pack lunches and art supplies, and go to Prairie. ​​

Williams saw the impact of her lessons: Everybody started making art and engaging with one another. It was magical.;

After miles of wilderness, we pulled up to the schoolhouse. Little kids ran out to hug us. My students — rarely seen as anything to anybody — became kings and queens. Everybody started making art and engaging with one another. It was magical. ​​

That gave rise to Project Van Go, the mobile art school I’ve been running for 45 years. We visit these remote schoolhouses and bring a full day of art lessons — for free. When I was still working for the school system, my students and I might take two dozen trips like that per year. Now that I’m retired, I probably do two to four trips a year. Since I don’t have high school students, I do it with three former students of mine who have become art teachers themselves. We’ve been to almost every small one-room schoolhouse in Idaho, and some in Nevada. ​​

It’s always hard to leave a school. The children appreciate the lessons so much. And that appreciation always meant so much to the students who accompanied me.

​I’ve had people contact me and ask how to start something like this. Well, it’s a lot of work. Packing supplies for one of these trips is like packing a family of six for a weeklong vacation. And schools are so different now. You can’t just put public high school kids in a van and take them for two days without release forms, without insurance. Everybody’s afraid of what might happen instead of being excited about what might happen. ​

I still stay in touch with a lot of my former students. Many of them were those kids who would show up at the classroom door with some big life crisis going on, and now they’re doing really well. Some of my proudest moments are when I look back at who these students were and who they are now. ​

Brennen Jensen is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle and personality profiles. His work has appeared in Garden & Gun and The Local Palate, and he is the coauthor of A History Lover’s Guide to Baltimore.