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Paint-A-Park program fosters deeper engagement through art

Walnut tree rendering by park visitor.
Walnut tree rendering by park visitor.

The covid-era trend of getting outside continues to bring visitors into Miami Valley’s Park systems. Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton offers park patrons the opportunity to capture and share their park experience on paper through the Paint-A-Park program. WYSO’s Renee Wilde went to Sugar Creek Metro Park on a Sunday afternoon to sketch the scene.

Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton is offering park patrons the opportunity to capture and share their park experience on paper through the Paint-A-Park program.

Two riders on horseback are cutting across the grassy median as I pulled into the parking lot at Sugar Creek Metro Park. It’s not unusual to see horses there, thanks to the miles of bridle trails in the park and its remote location near Bellbrook and Centerville.

What is unusual at the park are the pads of sketch paper, stacks of colored pencils and other art supplies that park staff and volunteers are handing out to visitors.

Transforming park experiences

Mary Beth Hobson is an education specialist for Five Rivers MetroParks. She came up with the Paint-A-Park program during the pandemic. Originally, the program was created so that people could buy painting kits to take home during the pandemic, but it has now transformed into a monthly event to draw visitors into the different Miami Valley parks.

“It’s part of getting people to slow down,” Hobson said.

Most of the people coming into the park today are dressed in running shoes and sportswear, and they seem caught off guard by the painting set-up.

“That’s what we did when I was in high school. We would come and run on the trails in the park, so you got into that mindset of these (trails) are just for exercise instead of exploration,” Hobson shared.

And there is plenty to explore at this park, like the 550-year-old oak trees.

“I think that is amazing,” Hobson said. “We don’t have a lot of old-growth forests left. It kind of expresses a continuity of life. This 500-year-old tree has seen so much more than we ever will.”

The Paint-A-Park program goes to a different metropark on the first Sunday of every month.

“With the express purpose of showing off what we have,” Hobson said. “This particular park has 618 acres. It was farmland, like a lot of our parks are. Next month we’re doing Island Metro Park, which is in the inner city but is also kind of a hidden gem.”

Trail leading into Sugar Creek Metro Park.
Trail leading into Sugar Creek Metro Park.

Deeper engagement and future nature enthusiast

Hobson hopes that the Paint-A-Park program will be a gateway for visitors to connect with nature through journaling, create memories that they will carry with them and help grow a generation of future nature stewards.

Her favorite moment so far was “in February, there was a young teenage girl who came, and we were at RiverScape and she sat and did the little gazebo over there and spent the entire three hours just creating this artwork and was so excited to share it. And it warms my heart because I was that kid (laughs). I was that kid who loved to be in nature but also loved to do art.”

Visitors can sign up in advance for the program each month, but drop-ins are also welcome, like Becca Robbins, who was pleasantly surprised to stumble across the program today on her walk. She took an armful of supplies and hit the green trail down along the creek, where she captured a pileated woodpecker on paper.

“I love to draw. I’m an artist. I’m an interior designer by trade. I’ve been meaning to bring something with me, but you’re lucky to get your shoes on and get out here. So I love it. I’m just excited and happy,” Robbins told me.

Hobson said this deeper engagement with the parks is one of the goals of the program.

“I want them to get themselves out to different parks and fall in love with those parks so that then they want to take care of them. The views and the pictures that we are getting from all sorts of people, all sorts of ages, have been a lot of fun but also very eye-opening. A three-year-old who’s three feet off the ground versus an adult. You get different viewpoints and different ideas of what is beautiful.”

Hobson and metropark volunteers are taking photos of the artwork created by visitors, which will be uploaded onto the park's website. About 90-100 paintings will be able to go up soon.

You can find and sign up for future Paint-A-Park programs at the Five Rivers MetroParks website.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.