The route Kathy Anderson took to found her School for Young Artists 40 years ago this coming year was a bit circuitous, a bit of a crab-walk, but also very Woodstock in an old-town way. Just as the School is so very home town, both as a joyous Bearsville presence and a key element in several generations of the community’s children and parents.
“I had always been a teacher, but I’d also always worked for someone else,” the eternally effervescent Ms. Anderson says, punctuating her thoughts and memories with the remnants of an early autumn cough. “When I got an opportunity to stop and look at what my work had been like, what I liked to do, and what I knew worked, I realized I had to focus on doing something with children.”
We step back to Anderson’s earliest days in town. It’s the 1970s and she’s already moved on from a younger dream of becoming a musician that took her to conservatory in the 1960s, where a professor’s directives resulted in physical pain that forced her to search out new ways in which to express her creativity. She became a certified Montessori teacher, moved to Woodstock and found work at the old Children’s Center, which would eventually morph into the Woodstock Day School.
But Anderson found herself bristling at the standardized aspects of the teaching she was doing. It reminded her of what her experience with music teachers had done to her.
“I couldn’t do that to my students and I could not right the system from within,” is how she’s put it on her school’s website. “So I started my own system, an education like none other. Developed during a span of over 30 years, outside of the system, based on independent studies and a career rich in experiences with students.”
The School for Young Artists is currently hosting Monday drawing classes for kids, in the afternoon, and adults in the evening. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are for after school kids art programs, two hours long, as are Saturday mornings.
“I also do private classes and birthday parties,” Anderson added.
The School flourished as this single mother started teaching what she wanted, what she felt, out of her kitchen. She aimed at totally individual instruction, at maintaining her and her students’ excitement by maintaining a “spur-of-the-moment” aesthetic.
“It was my job to reflect back to my students that it was their ideas that were important,” she said. “Children come to believe in themselves, in that which excites them, and in that way people become empowered.”
Anderson paused to clarify one of the lessons her years of teaching taught her.
“Creativity begins with choice,” she continued. “If you don’t have any choice it’s not creative. If you’re making choices you are learning something because you know it’s you. Art is all about process…”
At the School of Young Artists in Bearsville — whose building started life as the Bearsville School in the 1890s and then Kirshbaum’s Bakery before Anderson bought it in 1985 and moved her school into the baker’s addition, with she and her teenage children upstairs — art works are never signed. Much of the work never even makes it home for presentation on fridges or bedroom walls.
“We see what’s made in our classes as transitional objects rather than products,” she said. “When kids take their art home it’s not for value but as a reminder of inspiration.”
Anderson spoke about changes she has seen in students, and parenting styles, over the years.
“Initially parents would ask ‘What is it?’ of their kids’ work. That morphed into ‘That’s wonderful!’ while earlier children voiced more uncertainty because they were taught there were right answers. Now I don’t feel kids have [to have] much of an opinion at all,” she noted. “Today, kids are over-programmed. They get into the studio here and ask, ‘What do you mean we can do what we want?’ People’s lives are so overbooked…”
Anderson added that she lets students bring smartphones into the studio, but they can only use them during breaks. She doesn’t play music: “I expect everyone to be present. I have to hold the energy in the studio here.”
Which doesn’t mean that she’s against computers; those are utilized for Photoshop, Illustrator, animation…as tools for creativity. And it also means she doesn’t lecture about smartphones. “If you totally deny something you’re just handing over a tool for rebellion.”
We speak for a while about my own son, who spent some Saturdays with Kathy Anderson at the School for Young Artists when he was four and five (he’s now going on 14). She remembers him well, just as she remembers all who’ve been through her studio (noting that, if and when a class size grows over 8, she hires former students as help. Her present assistant is 13).
“Everywhere I look in the community I see past students, or past students’ parents. People stop by and bring their own kids in,” she said. “I was influenced by Maria Montessori’s idealism, by Summerhill, by the Great Society of the 1960s, when I worked with Head Start and there was a glimmer of the kind of education we could have with no walls, where it’s all about building self-confidence. When doing art was a way of doing anything.”
Experience, especially when completely self-driven and acknowledged, is a mighty professor. Kathy Anderson is quick to acknowledge how “when kids feel they can, they can” do anything. She’s thrilled to have created a school, a space, where “it’s not just a way of spending two hours a week as a help to choosing college,” but a means to bettering life for all involved.
I asked her how the School for Young Artists will persevere beyond Anderson’s own energy and enthusiasm.
“I wish I had someone I was mentoring,” she adds after we speak about other spaces around town such as the craftsmaking center Fiberflame, started by former students of hers. “I love this work but I turn 77 on January 11 and my body is telling me this is a big place I’m managing here. I’m always looking to mentor somebody…”
But Kathy Anderson again returns to her teaching and arts philosophy. It’s all about offering choices, possibly challenges, that are up to students to take or not. The discovery is never hers, the teacher’s, to push. It’s all about recognition and inspiration on the student’s part.
Besides, there’s a class coming in. And there’s a student who may want to expand on an idea he’s been playing with involving ribbon-like fish drawn underwater. Maybe those ribbon-fish can be filled out, given heft and dimensionality.
Then again, that’s a choice, and their life as ribbon fish may be enough.
Simple as that.
For more on Woodstock’s singular School for Young Artists, and the irrepressible Kathy Anderson, see schoolforyoungartists.org, call 679-9541, or head out Wittenberg Road from Bearsville. You can’t miss it.