Children’s Art Studio encourages kids to find their own path to creativity

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The Children’s Art Studio (CAS) program on Huguenot Street in New Paltz is based on the concept of open studio time, in which no specific instruction is given but the space and tools to create art are made available. Usually it’s adult artists given this kind of free rein, but Liz Cunningham is making the concept available to kids ages seven to ten in a unique afterschool program.

Children’s Art Studio does not offer art classes or lessons. “We don’t guide them in a particular direction, but instead offer options and choices,” Cunningham says. “We allow them to find their own path in whatever creation they’re making. The adults are there for the safety of the group and to ensure materials are used properly and safely, but we want the kids to be running the experience for themselves.”

The program is free for the kids. The art supplies are donated, and the adults involved are all volunteers. Cunningham serves as the program coordinator. Her team of adult volunteers — all committed to coming once a week to be with the kids — are Dagen Julty, Scott Anderson, Barbara Diebeler, Michael Forcella and Logan Lapointe. The concept for CAS was really “co-created with this team,” says Cunningham.

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The fall session begins Thursday, September 15 at Unframed Artists Gallery on Huguenot Street. Gallery owner Michele Riddell is donating her space for the program every Thursday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. through November 17. The schedule is designed to coincide with the local school-district calendar, so any school closings will apply to CAS as well. Buses from Duzine and Lenape elementary schools will take children directly to Unframed Artists Gallery when classes let out for the day. Following a winter break, a spring session of CAS will be held March 16 to June 1.

Children’s Art Studio was first launched last spring. Attendance increased gradually through word-of-mouth and flyers. Now that the word is out — and because no more than twelve children can fit in the gallery along with the adults supervising — parents are asked to RSVP each week to ensure their child’s spot. There is no requirement to come every week.

Art supplies are donated from a number of resources. “There are a lot of people with unused art materials they’re just waiting to find a good home for,” explains Cunningham. “We’ve received a lot of great donations, and I’m happy to continue to receive those. I’ll accept any usable art supplies with the exception of fabric.” Donations by check made out to Children’s Art Studio will be used specifically for supplies.

There is a need for more volunteers. “I would love for us to have a bigger team with more adults who are willing to commit to volunteering at least once a month to support Children’s Art Studio. They do have to attend a training, but I’m open to having a variety of dates for that or talking to people individually. We do have a specific manner in how we handle the creative expression, making sure our volunteers are supportive in appropriate ways. They have to know when to step back and let the kids do their own thing.”

Cunningham has a BFA in printmaking, papermaking and bookmaking from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She worked with children through several nonprofit arts organizations in Minneapolis, and moved to Rosendale two years ago to work at the Women;s Studio Workshop, to which schoolchildren are often hosted on field trips. Cunningham also worked for Mohonk Preserve as an environmental educator and taught art at The Little Gym of Kingston.

The seed for CAS was planted when Cunningham was working for Mohonk Preserve. “I was talking with one of the mothers of my campers, and she told me she was having a hard time finding a good art class for her daughter. I looked into it, and everything I saw either cost a lot of money or were formalized classes. Based on that, I decided to create a space where kids could go just to be creative, rather than following a lesson. I knew I wanted to work with kids and I love making art, so I decided to bring that together in a totally new program.”

Cunningham was impressed with the things the kids came up with during the first session of CAS last spring. She was excited and surprised by their willingness to work with each other and draw inspiration from each other.

“One of the materials we had through donation were these circular pieces of cardboard,” she says. “One of the kids created a mandala, which is something they’d learned about in school. So over the next couple of weeks, everybody got interested in creating a mandala. I brought in books on mandalas, and an artist friend of mine came in to share her mandalas. One of our girls even made a 3D mandala representing the earth and its interior and exterior. It was incredible. We talked about symmetry and patterns, and what a mandala can represent and about abstract and representational work. It opened up all these opportunities to teach them skills and how to communicate with each other.”

A sharing circle is also a part of the program, where the children have the opportunity to share their work (or not) and ask questions (or not). “It’s not a critique,” says Cunningham, “more of a show-and-tell opportunity. The kids can safely talk about their work and not be criticized by their peers or adults.”

She would like to see the Children’s Art Studio in New Paltz be the first of many local chapters, and possibly grow into a 501c3 nonprofit. “I would love to see the program expand, but not necessarily in New Paltz. I would love for there to be a Kingston chapter of CAS, or a Poughkeepsie group. Part of the appeal of being at Unframed Artists Gallery is that it is intimate and small, and because of that ratio of facilitators to children the kids really are able to get the support they need. Keeping the group small helps them stay focused on their work and keeps the program from becoming just a free after-school program.”

No matter what direction the group eventually takes, “It’s really important that we keep this program free to the public,” she adds. “As long as adults are able to step up and contribute the space and their time, there’s no need for any income. Supplies are donated, or we’re able to work with what we have. And that’s a great lesson for everyone in being creative with your resources.”

Information is available by contacting Liz Cunningham at liznc1989@gmail.com.

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