Arts Fest: Superpowering the kids

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
Members of the Super Art League from left: James Kindler commissioner K, Cage Cunningham Night Wing, Zayin Thaxton Captain Thunder, Lucy Dyer Snowball Demon, Heidi Madsen Plucky the flying squirrel, Kristen Dyer Alpha and Janette Jones-Ball Itsy Bitsy Glitzy.

Cape, logo, vehicle — all of these are important to the superhero. But most important is a superpower, and the Super Art League is all about helping Columbus kids find theirs.

Of course, the SAL is going to help young people with those other aspects of super-ness, as well.

Led by visual artist James Kindler and performance artist Heidi Madsen (with help from Kristen Dyer and Janette Jones-Ball), the Super Art League is designed to be a fun, affirming, educational and empowering experience for kids. The SAL will bring a taste of this to the Columbus Arts Festival on Saturday, June 10.

“We are always asking the question, ‘What is your super?'” Madsen said. “It's not even about [being a] superhero per se, but it's … the thing about you that is super. You can take a superhero route if you want, but … we're not just about, ‘I want to be Batman.' [It's] asking, ‘What is it about me that's unique?' I turn that into my superpower and that becomes my persona, my authenticity — amplifying a part of myself to share with an audience.”

“I went to clown school,” she continued. “One of the principles of clowning is taking that thing about you and amplifying it, and that becomes your clown character. So this is that same idea in terms of a superpower.”

Kindler said SAL is adapted from work he did with the Artists Wrestling League, an artist collective in Franklinton that holds art-making “matches” between two lucha libre-costumed artists, complete with over-the-top wrestling behavior. AWL started a program for youths, and Kindler said he could see it making a difference, as shy, quiet kids would open up when adopting an amplified persona.

“I coached soccer for 12 years. I don't remember our won-loss record, but I can tell you how many kids went to college and that sort of thing,” Kindler said. “I wanted to teach life lessons. I saw [SAL] as a way to teach kids to get up in front of people, to give them some performance skills while being positive and affirming of their unique traits. [It] could benefit them in various ways.”

Kindler invited Madsen to add a performance instruction element to the visual art-making foundation, something she “disguises” as structured play. Madsen said the performance work is designed to not only build confidence and leadership skills but also compassion and inclusiveness.

“We're trying to teach the community what diversity and inclusion actually mean,” she said.

Super Art League is designed as a three-month, every-other-week program that combines visual and performance art to teach skills and personal development. No longer affiliated with Artists Wrestling League, SAL will operate out of a space in Clintonville.

“It's all related,” Madsen said. “I'm creating my own persona, not only the way I'm acting, not only the character I'm embodying, but creating my own costume along the way. That's the visual arts piece.”

“For the classes,” Kindler said, “they spend an hour with me or with a visiting artist and then an hour with Heidi working on stage presence. I think kids like that part the best.”

At the Arts Festival, Super Art League will have an adapted version of its regular program. From noon to 1 p.m. on Saturday, the group will be set up in the Art Makes Columbus Activities Village. During this time, kids can design and make their cape and mask, and also spend some time at play with Madsen. From 2 to 3 p.m., they will be invited onto the Bicentennial Stage to reveal their personas and to engage in public drawing displays while in character.

“The performance part of it is the kids dressed up in their costumes, along with some of the kids we have in the class who have their personas already done up, plus our adults in their costumes and personas, all coming together on stage,” Kindler said. “We'll have easels on stage, and we'll have six different topics that they can make art about, four [kids] at a time, from ‘What is your superhero logo?' or ‘What would your superhero car look like?'

“That is a way to work together creating art for [an] audience and playing with their persona as they're doing it,” said Madsen, whose persona is Plucky the Flying Squirrel.

Both Kindler and Madsen said Super Art League is set up to hold regular, ongoing classes while also offering these one-off programs for festivals and other events. In fact, SAL is scheduled to participate in Independents' Day in September, Kindler said.

“The idea is to get a group of kids committed to do the series and then sort of wrap it up with a performance at a festival,” Madsen said. The hope is that after the performance, the next six-week series would be filled with kids who tried it at the festival as a one-off or who just saw the stage performance and wanted to get involved.

“We want to reach a broader community because we think we have something really cool here,” Madsen said.