Learning through coloring was the idea behind a project created this spring by the Student Art and Design Club (SADC), a student organization at West Kentucky Community and Technical College’s Paducah School of Art & Design (PSAD).
In February 2019 and 2020, an art installation of portraits — “Defining Paducah” — was displayed on windows of a downtown Paducah building for Black History Month. In 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibit’s concept had to be reimagined.
“The pandemic really restricted a lot of things and canceled events, so we just decided we couldn’t do our typical celebration,” said Tanya Neitzke, painting instructor and SADC club co-adviser. “We were brainstorming what would be interesting to do and came up with a coloring book.”
Neitzke said the idea behind “Defining Paducah” was to “provide education about the history of this area that maybe people didn’t know before about the Black community. We thought the coloring book would be really neat-for both kids and adults,” she said.
The original “Defining Paducah: Honoring the Outstanding Legacy of Local African Americans” art installation consisted of portraits created by SADC students in 2019 that recognized the legacy of notable African-Americans from Paducah and were displayed on the downtown windows. For the exhibits in 2019 and 2020, some 40 portraits were completed. The portraits in the coloring books are outlined versions of the original portraits recreated by the students.
Kirsten Meadows, a visual communications major at PSAD, was one of the artists involved in Defining Paducah, painting two of the original portraits.
“I think it’s really important for school children to learn about Black history all through the school year, not just during Black History Month,” the Paducah resident said. “Coloring is just one of the most fun things about elementary school, and it helps you learn and remember stuff.”
Emily Esau, PSAD visual communication instructor and SADC co-adviser, said the primary driving force behind Defining Paducah and the coloring book is part of the mission of the college.
“Part of the mission of WKCTC is to create community engagement but also to educate beyond the college itself. So, by doing this, we reach them (children) at a young age.”
The coloring book provides a brief history or basic information about the person included with each portrait.
“It creates this literal connection — if you are writing or drawing you are thinking, and as you are coloring, you connect to that person,” Esau said. “But it also might motivate (the children) based on the things they learn about that person. They might think ‘can I make a difference like they did?’ ”
Neitzke agreed: “Hopefully reading these stories will make young kids interested to find out more about what happened to this person, where did they work? Where did they live?”
Instilling that curiosity and interest in local history has a bigger long-term potential for the faculty and students involved in the coloring book project, Esau added.
“There is talk about town retention because so many people keep leaving. I think this is a way you are going to stop it. It’s not just about jobs — you have to feel rooted to where you are. Without that strong community feeling, it is just as easy to find a job a couple of hours away,” Esau said. “There’s a pride that comes with knowing the history. If the kids would start with that connection to their hometown, it’s not about ‘how can I get out,’ but ‘how can I make a difference?’ ”
While 600 printed coloring books were distributed to Paducah schools and the Oscar Cross Boys and Girls Club in late April, the SADC is offering digitized versions of the coloring books available for download to educators and anyone who would like a copy. Details are available on their Facebook and Instagram pages @studentartdesignclub.
The club is also discussing creating a “Defining Paducah” website to make the portraits and information more readily available year-round. And the group hopes to have new portraits for a third art installation in February 2022.
SADC students whose illustrations contributed to the coloring book were Paducah residents James Easley, Natalie Hutchins, Chasity Klauburg, Chris Klauburg, Nathan Lawson, Wes Vancleve, Nadia Pacheco and Haley Rutherford; Lily Cox of Fredonia; Molly Hughes of Mayfield; Kirsten Meadows of Kevil; and Jennah Hottel of Grand Chain, Illinois.
PSAD faculty member Erich Neitzke joined Esau and Tanya Neitzke in helping students with the project.