Children find their voices at art academy

At the new Heritage Academy on Greene Street, a bespectacled boy walks into a room pulling a suitcase full of books behind him. Thomas has to be prompted to look Children’s Art Walk instructor Bruce Klassen in the eye, and to shake his hand.

“Hey, don’t leave me hanging,” Marc Schafer playfully admonishes, his hand suspended in  mid-air, waiting on Thomas to slap him five. “I’ll  be here all day.”

But half an hour later, with a lollipop propped in the hinge of his easel and a paintbrush in his hand, he is almost a different fourth-grader.

“Oh, Thomas is painfully shy,” Schafer, Children’s Art Walk executive director, acknowledges affectionately.

But at the moment, Thomas is talking animatedly about the piece all the children are painting, an interpretation of a photograph of the sun setting over the ocean. He’s obviously proud when Klassen holds his work up in front of the class.

“Is this an artist?” Klassen asks. “Yes!”  the class answers. “What are you?” he asks.

“Artists!” they reply.

There’s Ebony: polite, quiet, focused. Her voice is sometimes barely audible, but no one would call her shy. This third-grader  exudes confidence, even when struggling to fill in the details of her painting. She’s a listener, soaking up all of the directions that Klassen gives her. Her brush strokes are strong and sure, with thick black outlines.

Every child has a different style, and every painting reflects that style. Emma’s picture is composed of a soft wash of colors without definite boundaries. It’s partially indicative of the calm, laid-back demeanor of this second-grader. Chris is more kinetic. The fifth-grader doesn’t sit still while he paints, moving his water cup around and rushing a bit through his piece. But his paintings exude an energy that can be felt from across the room.

All of these students are successful painters in the eyes of Klassen and Schafer. But more than that, the two men believe that these students will be successful in life because of their painting.

“Our goal is to give kids that don’t normally have the success seed planted in them… to succeed in a non-competitive arena,” Klassen says. “One of the big rules is no judgment. We try not to judge either harshly or benignly.”

Instead, they gently question the student about the decisions they made.

“It’s the Socratic method,” Schafer explains. “I will ask you until you realize the answer.”

Neither Klassen, a former professional skier, nor Schafer, a future law student, is against competition. But contending with oneself can be more difficult than competing against another.

Klassen well knows this, since he suffers from fibromyalgia, a neuromuscular disease. Although he founded the program, he teaches about one class each week,  relying on Schafer to do the lion’s share  of the work.

Together, the the two are not just teaching students how to map out colors and follow a list of commands. They are teaching them a new way to see the world.

Klassen breaks oil painting down into six steps: decide what to paint, block out the shapes on your canvas as a roadmap, block out the lightest and darkest areas on the page, block out the colors on the canvas, step back and check the painting for areas of needed improvement and then fill in the details with shading and other fine-tuning techniques. Sounds simple until you try it; but the truth is that each step has a life lesson.

Step two, for example: “We look for pushing the kids to not accept roadmaps that won’t stand,” Klassen says.

The end result among low-income  students, like many of those enrolled  at Heritage Academy, is economic  improvement through art education.

“One of the goals of it is to further show the kids what their efforts can yield, and increase awareness of their capabilities,” said artist and volunteer Michele Arroyo. “A lot of people I know have seen the need for it, but didn’t know where to start.”

Klassen did. The retired businessman spent years as a board member of the San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Boys & Girls Club, and saw the need for and the success rate of social outreach programs while there.

“All of the kids there were either with us, or they were with the gangs,” he says. “We want to turn out not future artists, but we want to turn out future leaders.”

And the brightest leaders, Klassen said, were those who admitted to making a lot of mistakes.

“That’s why oil is such a beautiful medium, because you can fix an oil painting for days and days and days and days,” he said.

And because the vast majority of children have had no experience in oil painting, this kind of competition puts everyone on a level playing field. Small classes and plenty of volunteers from the artistic community and the Junior League ensure individual attention.

And when they’re done, the children get to sell their art through shows or through the organization’s online gallery and store. They can keep the money they make, or volunteer to give some back to the program. The majority give an average of 30 percent of their proceeds to help fund the program.

“They understand that, by giving back, they’re giving to their peers,” Schafer said.

And that may be the greatest lesson they learn.

Children’s Art Walk Show and Sale
The Bee’s Knees
Wednesday, March 5


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