There are three words of advice that Essex (Mass.) Elementary PTO leaders give to students and parents at their annual Messy Art Night: Take a smock. Other than that, there are pretty much no rules for the rest of the evening. But after one look at the night’s offerings, everyone can see they’ll be doing much more than assembling mini penguins out of a few cotton balls and paint.

“This event is the exact opposite of that kind of controlled craft project,” says event coordinator and PTO past president Jess Yurwitz. “We want scribbling, sloshing, marking, and mixing. We want big, messy, individual art.” Attendees at Messy Art Night can sample a variety of sophisticated art forms ranging from pottery and wire sculptures to oil painting and mosaics. And, of course, as the name suggests, they have the freedom to dig in and use creative license.

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Yurwitz conceived the idea for Messy Art Night in 2009; she figured she’d call on several local galleries and museums to help collaborate on an educational event that would showcase the area’s vibrant art scene. “In Cape Ann [on the North Shore of Massachusetts], there’s a lot of artists who live here since factory space is affordable,” she explains. The first person she contacted was sculptor Chris Williams, who excitedly volunteered his time along with a 13-foot bronze rhinoceros to display at the event. By the time Yurwitz was done calling the others on her list, she had more than a dozen artists to assist with the night’s activities.

For the February 2011 event, more than 200 people explored 16 different art stations, including unstructured drawing and painting areas and a “little children’s center” with shaving cream, crayons, and tempera paints. Leaders built in a scavenger hunt, for which families had to answer questions based on the evening’s artist and activities; those who completed the form were entered in a raffle. Baked goods and light refreshments were offered for sale.

Besides being a fun and creative night for families, the event has given the PTO a terrific boost in visibility. “[Messy Art Night] is also focused on supporting the visual arts, so it does a nice job of showcasing the kind of work that our PTO does and what we spend money on,” Yurwitz explains. She and the other parent leaders are already thinking about ways to make the night bigger and better for 2012, possibly by combining it with the town’s annual antiques and art show and by creating more stations. “We plan to add in a teen zone with computer-aided design, airbrushing, and screen printing,” she says.

For Yurwitz, one of the great things about Messy Art Night is that it sparks a transformation in child and parent alike. Early in the night, she says, “They seem to be feeling out the limits—wondering, ‘Can I really make a mess here?’” As the night progresses, however, they see that anything goes. “We use really big paper and big brushes and lots of glitter and all sorts of big, messy things. It’s terrific!”

Essex (Mass.) Elementary PTO

225 students, grades K-5
$40,000 annual budget

Messy Art Night

Families can try their hand at a variety of artistic styles guided by local artisans, museum employees, and other volunteers

Master planners: PTO president Jess Yurwitz and event cochair Winnie Rennie begin recruiting help at the PTO’s back-to-school night. “It’s much easier to get volunteers for an early February event than trying in mid-December to rally a crew together—that’s just deadly,” Yurwitz says. Among the volunteers were students from the high school art honor society. The event is held on a Friday night from 5 to 8 p.m., which offers families flexibility in arrival time and a chance to try all the activities.

Art collection: The PTO needed to make a big up-front investment for the first Messy Art Night ($1,000), but the purchased supplies—paper, ink, printmaking rollers, paint, brushes, trays and buckets, and the like—will last at least five years. Artists and business owners also donated some materials. To cover expenses, leaders charge a $5 admission fee, with a family cap at $20.

Bronze feat: Before the first event, PTO leaders discovered that the bronze sculpture loaned by a local artist for display in the cafeteria didn’t fit through the doors of the school! “We contacted our town department of public works and asked them to help us unload and load the rhino with one of their cranes,” Yurwitz recalls. A few volunteers even had to take apart the doorjamb and weld it back together.