"See how this collage looks like a cityscape?” asks artist Kate Ortolano, holding up a piece of black cardboard covered with strips of paper that looks remarkably like a night skyline. Eight squirmy elementary-school kids nod in unison. “By layering the paper and using different colors and textures, you can create a feeling of depth. So without a lot of thinking, I’d like you to just get started and see what happens.”
As the sound of ripping paper fills the air, a 9-year-old boy holds up a long gray strip and says, “That’s a Jack-in-the-Beanstalk skyscraper right there, but it’s bigger than my cardboard. Can I do that?” A girl to his left, who’s already gluing tree bark to her project, quickly responds, “You can do anything you want to do, because it’s yours and it’s art.” That’s exactly what Ortolano loves to hear.
Put a few simple supplies in kids’ hands, and magic happens, she says. “That’s what kids are missing when art is cut from the curriculum — not just the valuable opportunity to make cool stuff but the no-holds-barred creativity that comes with it — the feeling that it’s okay to take risks,” she says. “That’s incredibly beneficial for kids’ growth, and it’s getting lost in our culture.” Which is why she and four friends banded together a year ago to start Artescape
, a low- or no-cost visual-arts center for mostly low-income kids in Sonoma, CA.
Mention Sonoma and the first thing that comes to mind is postcard-perfect vineyards. But there’s another side of the town that most cabernet-sipping visitors don’t see. “The schools on the west side are 50 to 80 percent Latino, and many families can’t afford extra after-school activities, let alone art classes,” says Ortolano. “Most of us live in the area, and we’ve worked in the schools, and it concerned us that these children may never have the chance to explore their creativity.”
So a few years ago, the founders came up with the idea of starting a center where kids can come for free and do high-quality art projects. “After two years of dreaming and one year of intensive planning,”
according to Thena Trygstad, a sculptor and one of the founders, Artescape opened its doors in a small, light-filled space near two local schools in May 2012.
Since then the center has held more than 75 classes and workshops, giving close to 500 kids, many who return day after day, free rein to dive headlong into a range of imaginative projects — everything from origami, bookmaking, and ’zines to jewelry, textiles, mosaics, and urban lettering. To broaden their offerings, the center brings in local artists to teach classes, too.
Coming mostly from private donations and small grants, Artescape’s finances are as fragile as the origami birds their students create. But what the founders lack in fiscal security, they make up for with passion. “We charge a nominal fee for our camps, but if a child wants to come and can’t afford it, we’ll find a way,” says Ortolano.
That commitment to welcoming all kids is paying off in big ways. They had one student who was struggling both academically and socially, Trygstad says. “He started coming here after school and discovered a real talent for drawing — and all of a sudden he gained new status among his classmates,” she says. “He had an identity he could be proud of, and it really changed his life.” Mia Cabrera says the classes built her shy 9-year-old son’s confidence, too. He became so passionate about origami that he eventually taught a class to his peers.
Not only do the classes help kids tap into new-found strengths, they teach another invaluable lesson, says Nick Anast, whose 7-year-old son attends regular workshops. “The women who started Artescape are consummate artists, but they don’t tell the kids what to do,” says Anast. “Instead, they focus on the process rather than the outcome.”
That kind of feedback makes painter and co-founder Gayle Manfre glow, because it gets at the heart of their philosophy. “Art is all about exploration. You can’t do it wrong,” she says. Exactly, adds Ortolano: “Every mistake is an opportunity. And that’s an important thing for kids to learn, because it’s not only true in art, it’s true in life.”