By Matt Larson
If you’ve yet to visit the Richmond Art Center (RAC), why haven’t you? Their galleries are free to visit! And they’re local. And they do great things that deserve communal support. Since 1936 they’ve been devoted to providing art-making experiences to young people and families throughout Richmond and West County. Their classes are fee based, but very affordable, and for people of all ages. Kids and adults can take classes in painting, drawing, fibers and weaving, ceramics and printmaking.
Still can’t find the time to pay them a visit? Well, if you happen to live near the Mathieu Court Alley in Richmond, you may have already seen some of their communal impact! Last Fall, in a special partnership with RAC, a group of 5th and 6th graders got to be instrumental in designing a public play space, officially deemed the Mathieu Court Alley Play Street, and unofficially deemed the Environmental Protection Alley.
The City of Richmond and The Trust for Public Land together approached RAC to take on this project. The Mathieu Court Alley is located very close to Peres Elementary School, a place where RAC was already conducting after-school programs, so they decided to make this alley project the focus of their 8-week after-school class.
“The first day of class it was very clear that we were working with the right group of kids,” said Rachel Schaffran, Art in the Community Director for RAC. “They totally understood the concept, and they were very much environmentalists!” To everyone’s pleasant surprise the kids wanted to focus on environmental themes for the alley—hence the Environmental Protection Alley alias. The official theme is water, as well as protection of water and protection of animals, and they wanted to illustrate the interconnectedness of life and nature. “It was their visions and themes that came out of the class that turned into the final design,” she adds. “So they’re the designers of the play space!”
At this writing, the first stage of the play space is complete. You’ll see a mural on the ground, a series of games including an adapted version of Twister, a painted pond with stepping stones you can hop through, and much more! With more to come! Many of the games here are designed to leave the rules of play open to interpretation. Lead teaching artists, Vreni Michelini Castillo and Sofie Siegmann wanted there to be plenty of different sites in the alley to play games, but not necessarily a game you would know, allowing for more creativity to flourish when kids enjoy the space.
This all came about with a grant from KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to bringing active play into children’s daily lives. Out of 200 finalists in KaBOOM!’s Play Everywhere Challenge last year, the City of Richmond was among 50 winners across the county. The challenge called for communities to reimagine what and where a play space is and can be; they had to think outside the box. $1 million in prizes were awarded to the 50 winners, a fraction of which went to the Mathieu Court Alley Play Street.
This project has been a very communal effort. RAC held a community input session where local residents could also have a voice to help the kids consider how the alley was designed, families who live in the neighborhood came out and helped paint, and local residents are full of innovative ideas to keep adding to this amazingly transformed alleyway. There is still more work to be done, and Schaffran tells us they look forward to a ribbon cutting soon. We’ll try and keep you posted, but be sure to keep in touch with RAC in regards to this, and everything else they’re up to, at richmondartcenter.org or call (510) 620-6772. “We’re kind of having a boom in terms of our education programming,” said Schaffran. “We’re open to the public, we’re free! Our classes are fee-based but we have scholarships for all ages, so we keep encouraging people to come and check us out.”