Arts for Rural Texas: Opening the Possibilities
Allyson Hoffmann doesn’t remember whether she was in the first or second grade when she took her first class sponsored by Arts for Rural Texas in Fayetteville (ARTS), but she does remember her first project.
“We painted three mice. Each one had a different primary color and secondary color.” Hoffmann, who is a sophomore at Fayetteville High School, said. “I’ve been taking art classes from ARTS ever since.”
ARTS brings high-quality, hands-on arts education to students throughout Fayette County. It provides a level of instruction that can’t be found anywhere else in the region.
“Our school wasn’t able to offer intensive art instruction,” Hoffmann, who plans to pursue art as a career, said. “Through these classes, I found a place to have fun—and learn new things. If it weren’t for these classes, my talent would be undeveloped, and I wouldn’t have discovered that art is something I am truly passionate about.”
Madeleine Bullen, a sophomore at Round Top-Carmine High School, didn’t begin her ARTS education until she was in middle school. A “bad” childhood art experience convinced her she didn’t have talent, so she had given up. Then, on a whim, she took a summer class that changed her life.
“In these classes, I discovered I truly loved art but didn’t have a base of knowledge to do my best work, so I was inspired to learn more,” Bullen said. “The teachers have encouraged me and introduced a host of new techniques to me, which has further fueled my interest. Now, I’m a passionate artist.”
Through the program, the young women have worked in a variety of mediums including oil, soft pastels, pencil, pen-and-ink and watercolors. Each medium requires mastering specific techniques. It’s not easy.
“When I’m faced with something new, I have to remember to just be brave and try it,” Bullen said. “I’ve learned in art—and life—you just have to be brave and try.”
Today, the young women receive individual lessons from Karen Vernon, a nationally recognized artist based in Round Top in their one-on-one lessons, the girls work in oils. In the process of learning to paint, they also learn to problem solve.
“Artistic thinking approaches problems from a unique perspective,” Vernon said. “Instead of considering what has been, artists have to consider what can be.”
Artists also have to learn to recognize and correct mistakes.
Hoffmann said, “If I have to correct something in one of my paintings, I get an explanation of why it needs to be fixed instead of just being told to correct it. I’m being trained to notice things on the canvas and compare them to the way they look in real life, which helps me develop the skills necessary to evaluate my work and make it better. Art is always moving forward, and artists are always improving.”
The young artists are gently pushed beyond their comfort zones, which opens doors. For instance, at the most recent Artists Changing Tomorrow event, Vernon arranged for Hoffmann and Bullen to participate in one of the evening’s fundraisers. The girls were tasked with creating a large-scale reproduction of an iconic J. C. Leyendecker illustration. Every time an event attendee made a donation, the young artists completed another section of the painting. Painting in front of a crowd that included renowned artists was a new challenge for the teenagers.
“Painting in front of a crowd…meeting other artists…seeing what they were doing…it was inspiring,” Bullen said. “ARTS has really helped expand my life and my opportunities, while letting me do something I love. I’m better for it.”
The History of ARTS
ARTS began at a potluck dinner in 2003. Originally, the group of artists and art lovers who had a particular passion for music organized themselves into the Art Guild of Fayetteville. Their goal was celebrating the area’s arts and culture. Their audience was adults.
“As fate would have it, several of the founding members were asked to perform for students at the Fayetteville school,” Jeanne Schilling, ARTS executive director, said. “When the founders saw how badly the school system wanted them to perform, and how the children responded to the music, they realized there was a different—and bigger—need.”
For the next several years, members brought performers to the Fayetteville schools as they worked toward a 501(c) 3 status. In the process, they defined their mission “…to heighten the visual and performing arts experience in our rural communities with an emphasis on providing educational opportunities for children” and expanded their mission field to include all of Fayette County. Their name was changed from the Art Guild of Fayetteville to ARTS to reflect their broadened focus.
The Model of ARTS
In 2006, ARTS was granted its non-profit status and began pioneering a model that addresses the challenges inherent in delivering art education to rural communities.
“Early on, the program’s leadership had to tackle the challenges of distance, of funding and of ‘necessity,’” Schilling said.
In Texas cities, there are neighborhood schools administered by a single school district. In rural Texas, there are different school systems in far-flung communities.
“The organization quickly learned there is no one-size-fits-all answer for Fayette County and the surrounding towns,” Schilling said. “The program’s success is based on recognizing the needs of each community and working with its leaders to develop relationships built on mutual respect and trust.”
In cities, it’s relatively inexpensive to put children on buses and take them to a nearby museum or performance venue to experience art. Rural Texas, though, is “geographically disadvantaged.” Traversing the state’s wide open spaces requires big bucks. Chartering a bus to take a group of students to Houston from Fayette County can cost more than $4,000 per bus per trip.
“It is cost prohibitive to bring the children to the art, so we bring the art to the children through guest performances and after school art classes,” Schilling said.
In both cities and rural communities, funding for arts education in the schools is limited. Increased testing demands also constrain the amount of time available for enrichment.
“School budgets are tight, and testing requirements are stringent,” Schilling said. “In order to be welcome in the schools, we knew any enrichment programs had to be cost-free and valuable, especially if administrators and teachers were going to give up instruction time. ARTS removes the barriers to participation.”
Working closely with the Texas Commission on the Arts, the local organization brings in recognized artistic groups such as the Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Symphony, Zimbabwe’s Rattle Tree Marimba and Juan Cabrera, a Paraguayan harpist.
“In the beginning, it was difficult to get on school calendars, but by consistently delivering top-notch programming, ARTS has earned the privilege of being a priority,” Schilling said. “These days, administrators, teachers, children—and parents—ask, ‘When is the next performance?’”
Initially, ARTS hosted two in-school performances per year. Now, the organization presents six annually.
The hands-on art classes are held after school under the leadership of local artists and teachers. This arrangement gives students uninterrupted time to engage in the creative process and the opportunity to enjoy a level of personalized instruction that comes with small class size.
“Each instructor brings a high level of skill and enthusiasm,” Schilling said. “While the projects and class organization are different, they all share the belief that the creative process is as important as the end product.”
The program model is firmly rooted in Fayette County, but it could help spread the seeds of creativity across the country.
“While our organization is limited to Fayette and Weimar, ARTS has built a model that can be replicated in rural areas all over the United States,” Schilling said. “Build it, remove the barriers—and they will come.”
The Scope of ARTS
The first after school art class was held on a sidewalk in Fayetteville. It was targeted towards elementary students. At the time, the local school district didn’t have an art teacher.
“Almost every student from the school showed up,” Schilling said. “The response was so overwhelmingly positive, it prompted the founders to ask: ‘How do we get this done everywhere for everybody in the county?’”
The answer was creating a series of classes and summer camps based in the local communities and partnering with existing organizations that would aid the mission by providing facilities or logistical support. Partners include Boys and Girls Clubs, schools and libraries. In Round Top for instance, the school district provides a bus to deliver elementary students to the Round Top Family Library. In Weimar and Schulenburg, the Boys and Girls Clubs open their doors for the after-school program.
“Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to nurture the arts,” Schilling said.
Art After School has grown from a single class to 18 classes per week encompassing students from every public and private school in Fayette County and Weimar. While most of the classes focus on visual arts, leaders have also added a musical theater class that moves to a different location each semester. Summer classes round out the offerings keeping students engaged year round.
“Registration is on a first come, first served basis,” Schilling said. “We have parents who set their alarms to ring at midnight on the days online registration occurs, so they can get a spot for their children. We consistently have waiting lists. Their enthusiasm confirms the need—and effectiveness—of our programming.”
Classes are limited to 12 students each and organized by grade. Elementary students are grouped first through third grades and fourth through sixth grades. Teens have opportunities in workshop-style sessions as well as summer camps. Some advanced students work one-on-one with instructors. Schilling estimates ARTS reaches 5,000 students per year including the six in-school performances.
“ARTS classes strive to provide consistent, high-quality instruction by professionals who nurture, encourage and challenge students to stretch their vision and their talents,” Schilling said. “We want to develop future citizens who experienced creativity as part of their basic development because art helps us become fully realized human beings.”
ARTS is supported primarily by people with a passion for art, for education, for children or some combination thereof.
“For many of the families we serve, art lessons might be considered a luxury,” Schilling said. “Our generous donors, including people who have retired here or have second homes here, want art education to be available for everyone.”
Some patrons make direct cash donations. Others, such as local philanthropists Stanford Schmid and his niece Terry Ross, have donated the buildings where the ARTS headquarters and Fayetteville classrooms are housed. Still others participate in the organization’s fundraising events such as Harvestfest each fall and Artists Changing Tomorrow. ARTS also sponsors ArtWalk, a juried fine art show, which also is Fayetteville’s most commercially important weekend.
“ARTS is fortunate to have donors—and volunteers—who are passionate enough to pay it forward with their money, time and talents,” Schilling said.
Recently, the organization has embarked on an aggressive grant writing campaign to supplement the contributions of local supporters.
“Fayette County, with Festival Hill, Winedale, private galleries and a host of museums, is a cultural hub,” Schilling said. “Our job at ARTS is bringing these exceptional artistic experiences down to the school level. We complement the artistic endeavors of all these other entities by creating the next generation of art and music lovers.”
Schilling, a former attorney, first got involved with ARTS 10 years ago as a volunteer. When her family relocated from Houston to Fayetteville, she enrolled their son in the after-school classes.
“I came to the program from an educational standpoint instead of the art side,” Schilling, who became ARTS executive director in 2013, said. “My son was in elementary school, and I wanted to be involved with him, but as I volunteered I became aware of the essential nature of art for everyone. I felt compelled to do more, and as the journey continued, I found myself being a more informed art lover, too.”
Her pathway to the program and a stronger personal appreciation for the arts is one she has seen repeated in families across the region.
“As their kids have gotten involved in our program, so have the parents,” Schilling said. “They provide transportation, they volunteer and they come to art-based events they didn’t attend before. As parents have gotten involved and engaged, they’ve come to understand that art is a common denominator human experience.”
She continued, “Ultimately, ARTS exists to open the possibilities of the mind—and the world—to children. It expands their horizons beyond what they’ve seen to what can be and makes it clear that passion and beauty can be part of life.”
by Lorie Woodward Cantu
photos by Dixie Ray Hamilton, Dixie Ray Photography
The ARTS website is the best way to stay up-to-date on upcoming and ongoing events. Plus, it has a link that allows direct contributions to the organization.
Calling All Teachers:
Demand for after school art classes is outstripping supply. The limiting factor is availability of teachers. ARTS is looking for professional artists or educators with art training who are willing to lead classes. The organization provides the location, the students, the materials and a stipend. The teacher provides expertise, leadership and a commitment to sparking creativity in children. For more information, contact Jeanne Schilling at 979-378-2113 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.