NOMAD Art Bus Paints Smiles on Faces of Tampa Bay Children

Carrie Boucher’s mouth moves and syllables pirouette out. Sometimes they’re punctuated by smiles. Sometimes they’re not.

When she talks about the way she started her project — an interactive mobile art machine — you can see the enthusiasm swell in her eyes and pool to her feet in a colorful swirl.

Every so often, she tucks a piece of brown hair behind her ear with paint-stained hands: mermaid blue, ballerina pink and Fruit Gushers green. She continues talking, but the hands tell her story as the former teacher who refused to let art be treated trivially. In fact, Boucher grew up flouting the rules.

“In art class I quietly broke the rules and used tools and materials in any way I imagined might lead me to a new discovery,” Boucher wrote on her blog.

Beneath the dried tempera, her hands are worn. She spent a year teaching art to children in schools before she became “Lead Nomad” in her new venture: an art bus that travels to festivals and occasionally serves as an after-school program.

How could she expect to teach children to create, to express themselves and to love art if they kept getting pulled for FCAT tutoring?

“There will always be children who won’t be good at reading or math,” Boucher said. “But to not give them exposure to other things they might be good at and feel good about that could lead to a career for them is really limiting, and that’s frustrating to me.”

Instead of complaining about the school system, Boucher set out to create.

The art teacher wanted to create a program in St. Petersburg that would offer kids the resources to express themselves through art. She wanted everyone to have access, even if they couldn’t afford it or didn’t have the transportation. As her non-profit’s creed says, she wanted to bring the art-making experience to the people.

The NOMAD Art Bus was born.

From the inside, the bus is a shabby slice of an art classroom. The art lesson changes with the scene, but on one recent day, red Solo cups hugged Crayolas on a long plank where children, parents, and a few hipster strays escape from the mayhem of Localtopia 2015 to fold origami squares into hearts. Volunteers offer their heart-folding guidance and LEDs to nestle in the squares to make their hearts shine.

From the outside, the bus is an art-making temple. It’s hard to imagine the brightly splattered machine as its naked predecessor. The sherbet-colored brushstrokes on its exterior offer excerpts from hundreds of children and families: “Bikes for Life,” “Recycle,” “Love your planet,” “R hearts K,” “Follow me on Instagram,” “Aliens Exist,” and “To Shelby.” Beneath the paint lies ghosts of brushstrokes from thousands more. Although this time the bus is dipped in complementary hues of pinks and oranges, the bus was once a calamity of crayon.

Originally, the nomadic bus was doctor’s-coat-white. You wouldn’t have known the difference between the NOMAD Art Bus and a greasy moving van. Boucher knew something would eventually be painted on the outside of the bus — maybe a mural, she thought.

The monotone mobile made its way to the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in 2014. The line to get inside the bus was snaking infinitely, and guests were getting bored and leaving. In attempts to keep her guests entertained long enough to stay in line and experience the inside of the bus, Boucher unveiled the crayons, and the iconic colorful exterior of the art bus was born.

Although the team switched to tempera, little has changed since.

When Carina Giuffre, 8, was asked outside about her favorite part of the bus, she held up her dripping pink art wand, appearing lost in introspection.

“Painting,” Carina said.

Washing it is another story.