It has been a difficult year for the director of the Museum of Kids Art on Webster Avenue in the city. She faced legal charges related to the mishandling of a small portion of a federal grant, and the non-profit lost some money because of that.
Michelle Cardulla knows a little bit about hardship. In addition to her own problems this year, she sees it almost daily – in the faces of the young artists she works with, “98% of the children are at poverty or below, so they struggle, they struggle with difficulties in their lives. They don’t really talk about it, but you can kind of see it in their faces, they have a lot of anger.”
But that anger, Cardulla says, has a way of disappearing once they get their hands dirty. Today a dozen kids from around the block are here working with Jason Bocko, Cardulla’s only staff member, “We’re going to use our black paint to start drawing outlines of…that’s really pretty, cool.”
The Museum of Kids Art, or MOKA, isn’t like a regular museum – it doesn’t have gallery hours or memberships. Right now, it’s just a loft with big windows and lots of light where city kids from a pretty rough neighborhood can come to let their imaginations loose. Nine year old Daniel shows me his self-portrait. In it, he’s wearing a Harry Potter style robe and standing by an apple tree.
“When I started doing that I was like that is going to be a shovel, no it’s a rake, I was going to make it a broom at first, but then I said I want to make it a rake." Daniel says. "I’m using the magic wand to make the rake float in the air and pick apples.”
The best stuff gets hung on the walls for friends and family to see.
“This piece actually is done by a teenage boy, from the Freedom School, and he didn’t like it at all. And I kept saying you don’t know how good this is, it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. They have to be tough y’know and say they don’t like it – especially a flower," says Cardulla.
It’s a painting of a flower that grew last summer in MOKA’s new garden – planted across the street in what used to be a couple of vacant lots covered with garbage.
“We grew tons of sunflowers in the garden. We did a Van Gogh project and showed the Van Gogh paintings and then did our own still lifes. Same with vegetables. We can do still lifes with vegetables,” says Cardulla. “When we harvested broccoli, I’ve never seen kids quite as excited about broccoli. We have pictures of them posing with their broccoli.”
But broccoli wasn’t the highlight for a little girl whose name is Kaylynn, “December 28th, I’m gonna turn seven.” She’s busy making decorations for MOKA’s year-end celebration, but agrees to talk about the garden while she works. Her favorite part was pulling up the carrots. “Some of them were hard, some were kind of easy, and some of them came in different shapes, and some of them were more than one carrot.”
The garden was paid for by the grant that led to Cardulla’s legal difficulties, so it could have become a pretty painful place for her. But the creative joy that bloomed there was powerful, “The garden is really the highlight for me this year. We really want it to grow, we want it to be something special that keeps on getting bigger and better, changing, evolving.”
Cardulla and Bocko are full of new ideas for MOKA, and they say they’re confident they’ll find the money to pay for them too. And so they’re ending the year – with a party. One with magic apple picker Daniel on the guest list, “Will you come back to the party? Oh, I’m coming to the party, are you. I’ll come to any party, haha, good for you!”