Honoring a daughter’s legacy of kindness and creativity

 

Emily Smith didn’t know any strangers.

The 26-year-old had a habit of making friends wherever she went. Once at the Winter Springs DMV, she presented the employee who invited her to the front of the line after she’d had to leave the center because she’d forgotten some paperwork, with a Kit Kat. She also sang to him.

At the gas station, Emily struck up conversations with whoever happened to be pumping gas next to her. She said hello to people on the street and was quick to compliment young girls and the elderly. When she saw destitute families sitting on the side of the road, she would head to McDonald’s and buy all she could off the dollar menu to feed them.

“Emily was like this amazing random-acts-of-kindness person,” says her mom Susan Hietpas. “She wanted everyone to be treated fairly and equally. She knew the power of words, the strength of small actions and the joy of an unsolicited opportunity.”

Emily, who passed away unexpectedly last November, was also a creative spirit.

“She couldn’t draw a perfect figure but she would gather the strangest items together and make something beautiful out of them. She loved to cook. Her favorite time of year was Halloween and she loved to dress up,” says Susan. “In all kinds of ways, she was creative.”

On December 1, this grieving mom will honor her daughter’s legacy of creativity and kindness in a way she knows Emily would fully support: by officially launching the nonprofit Simply Amazing to provide art and craft supplies to kids in homeless shelters and at-risk youth programs in Central Florida. Simply Amazing is the latest to receive a Scatter Joy Art Ambassador Grant, offered by the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts to individuals and organizations using the arts to make a positive difference.

The nonprofit will distribute its art boxes — one geared toward kids in kindergarten through third grade, another to fourth grade and up — to area shelters and the Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida, which provides youth development programs to at-risk children. The boxes will include crayons, markers, coloring pages, clay, friendship bracelets, doodling tutorials, a Simply Amazing coloring book and more, all of which have been approved by teachers and artists Susan knows to ensure they’re safe and age-appropriate.

“When I think about the items that are in each box, I see Emily using them,” says Susan, recalling the hours her daughter sat as a girl at a tiny desk that once belonged to her grandfather, lost in the possibilities of construction paper and glue. “I just know how happy that made her so when I put things together and was seeking out items to put into the box, I knew she’d think this is cool and she’d want to be part of it.”

Founded with the support of family and friends, including Emily’s brother Jake Smith, Simply Amazing has provided Susan with a way to not only channel and find purpose in her grief but to ensure Emily isn’t forgotten.

“Emily’s smile lit up a room and she scattered happiness like confetti. Her creative nature, love of art, and ‘give until it hurts’ spirit is what drives our mission,” she says. “I’ve always been a doer but I didn’t realize the power of love and the ability it gives you…I’m not going to be here forever so this is the way I can honor her.”

Emily was an avid arts and crafts lover from a young age, toting a sketchpad and pencils everywhere, squirreling away bottle caps and broken trinkets for craft projects and designing cards for every occasion to share with family and friends. Her kindness blossomed just as early.

Susan recalls the time Emily scoured the ground at a birthday party when the piñata dropped to make sure every party-goer got an equal share of the loot.

“Once at an arcade she steadily gave away her allotment of quarters so every child had a chance to play. Giving came natural to Emily and she would go without to give to others,” her mom says.

She carried that compassion into adulthood and a career as a private caregiver. From painting her clients’ nails and baking their favorite treats to remembering the important anniversaries of the loved ones they’d lost, she embodied thoughtfulness and caring.

“She leaned into others’ lives and recognized what would help them feel loved,” says Susan.

Providing art supplies to kids used to receiving only the basics in life is one such gesture of love. Eventually, Susan hopes to partner with high school students to offer guided arts and craft activities to underserved kids and has dreams of Simply Amazing going national.

“Emily would want children who receive a Simply Amazing Creative Box to know that this is a gift of their very own,” she says. “She would tell them to be creative because there’s no right or wrong way, just their own way.

“She would say, ‘If you mess it up, then dress it up.’ Your work is one of a kind — simply amazing — just like you!”

Click here to learn more about the work this nonprofit is doing to empower kids’ creativity.

Restoring dignity and joy to people living with dementia

 

 

For Sue Brown, ARTZ Philadelphia, a nonprofit founded to provide opportunities for people with dementia to create and talk about art, is really in the business of making magic.

Consider, she says, the man with Alzheimer’s disease lying in his room at a residential care community, wracked by loneliness. Yet at “art time,” he comes downstairs, turns gregarious, becomes a jokester even, as he sits next to three other men while his fingers work with deliberate frenzy on the canvas before him. When their time together is done, he stands at the door and bows to the facilitator with repeated words of thanks.

Or there’s the resident at another center, in another room, who suffer,s with depression. Reluctant to socialize, she allows herself to be coaxed into the activities room. There, she remembers, she can lose herself in a world of watercolors. “Oh,” she says, “that’s the place where I laugh.”

There are other stories: people in assisted living facilities who can’t remember to take their medicine or need help brushing their teeth but put them before a piece of art with someone eager to hear their thoughts and opinions, and vacancy is replaced with vigor. Show the 90-year-old who proclaims she’s not an artist that she can create a fish in three easy steps and when it’s hung in an exhibit, she proudly exclaims, “We don’t do fine art. We do fun art and that’s more creative.”

Or, as Brown likes to say, “It’s process over product. It’s about the joy of creating.”

Yet as a founding member of the ARTZ Philadelphia Board, she also sees a deeper mission in these interactions.

“What I am personally trying to do is to touch that person who’s still inside. Our end goal,” says Brown, “is not to have a beautiful piece of art work. Our end goal is to have a beautiful moment.”

When Susan Shifrin, the executive director of ARTZ Philadelphia, founded the nonprofit in 2013 it was because she had witnessed several of those moments herself as the museum educator at the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College. While there, she’d created a program to engage the imagination and creativity of residents at a nearby nursing home.

“Seeing them come to life in the galleries enabled me to envision a new path towards building greater understanding and appreciation for people who are living lives that have been changed by dementia diagnoses but are still full of meaning, full of who they were, are, and can be as long as the rest of us are dedicated to making that possible,” she says.

An art historian and curator who has worked at several museums along the East Coast, Shifrin also has a personal connection to creating opportunities for self-expression for people living with dementia given her mother’s dementia diagnosis almost 20 years ago.

“I was completely unprepared for the sense of helplessness, frustration, anger and isolation as my family tried to come to terms with my mother’s apparent ‘loss of self,’ ” she says. “The narrative of loss, incapacity, disability and ‘a living death’ surrounding a dementia diagnosis is all too prevalent in our world today. We are working towards a new narrative, towards a world that opens its doors wide to people living with dementia, restoring to them their communities, their joy and their dignity.”

ARTZ Philadelphia partners with arts and culture as well as service organizations across the region that share its inclusive goals. Its evidence-based programming is supported by research indicating people living with dementia have an increased tendency toward creative and artistic expression — and get more joy and meaning from their lives when provided with an outlet like the ones offered by ARTZ Philadelphia.

The organization’s many programs include ARTZ @ The Museum, where participants and their care partners gather in locations such as the Woodmere Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum of Art to informally discuss two to three works of art. Other series invite such conversations at residential care communities, where music, poems and everyday objects can also be included in the experience of making art and evoking memories. Sometimes, art is made spontaneously in “pop-ups” at adult day centers, medical offices and care communities. With ARTZ in the Making, for which Brown is the lead facilitator, residents in care communities can participate in hands-on group programs using a mix of media, while Opening Minds through Art pairs the artist one-on-one with a volunteer.

“Having people who don’t get a chance to make many choices choose what color they’re going to use, where they’re going to apply it, how they’re going to apply it, whether they want to use brushes, sponges, glue — there’s something about that. They call the shots, which rarely happens in a home,” says Brown, a former textile designer who has been leading fine arts, crafts and quilting experiences for seniors living with dementia for over 15 years. “Our art work is authentically theirs. It comes directly from the participant.”

This painting by an ARTZ Philadelphia participant is on display in the new exhibit “It Feels Like Freedom.”

That kind of freedom has inspired ARTZ Philadelphia’s newest exhibit, “It Feels Like Freedom…When Creativity Transcends a Diagnosis,” on view now through Jan. 25 at the Philadelphia Foundation Community Arts Gallery. These shows are always accompanied by a public reception as well as a private celebration for the artists and their family and friends.

“To have them walk through a gallery and see their artwork for the first time framed is just unbelievable,” says Brown. “It’s about recognizing the person for who they are.”

Adds Shifrin: “It’s important to me and everyone in our organization that people living with dementia and their care partners be recognized as full human beings, first and foremost, who just happen to be going through the very difficult circumstances of chronic illness.

“It’s always so moving and gratifying to watch someone come to life in our programs. I am inspired every single day…by their imaginative vision, by their wit and enduring humor, by their compassion for others and their willingness – once trust has been built – to risk and to try, always to try.”

The public reception for “It Feels Like Freedom” will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Philadelphia Foundation Community Arts Gallery, 1835 Market St., Suite 2410, Philadelphia. Information: 215-563-6417.

For more on ARTZ Philadelphia, visit www.artzphilly.org.

 

He’s writing songs to teach kids positive values

 

He’s been writing his own adult folk and jazz-inspired songs for years, but Anthony Viscounte has always had an affinity for children’s music.

The Warminster resident was obsessed with kids music superstar Raffi as a tot and still remembers the song he wrote encouraging kids to eat their vegetables while majoring in songwriting at Berklee College of Music. That tune was one of several inspired by a cousin who’d just had a baby.

Bill listens as Anthony records one of Wagman & Barkley’s songs.

“That got me thinking about music to inspire the next generation,” he says. “It was really fun to write those songs.”

It’s not surprising then that Anthony, who teaches music and songwriting at his studio, the Viscounte Academy of Music in Hatboro, Pa., is gearing up to launch a new project of original songs for children. As this summer’s recipient of the Scatter Joy Art Ambassador Grant, offered by the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts to individuals and organizations using the arts to make a positive difference, he will write and produce 12 songs, accompanied by illustrations, to share lessons about life, love, giving and friendship with a young audience.

“I thought it would be a fun way to make kids happy and channel the creative energy that they love,” says Anthony.

Anthony’s dogs, Pongo and Leo, served as inspiration for Wagman & Barkley.

The whimsical acoustic songs will feature Wagman & Barkley, two folk-singing pups inspired by his own dogs, Pongo and Leo — a Yorkie Bichon mix and Yorkipoo, respectively — and a sound that draws heavily on one of his biggest influences, Simon & Garfunkel.

“I was trying to think of lovable characters that kids would relate to, and loving my dogs as I do and loving music, I decided to put them together,” says Anthony.

He also decided to partner with artist and former educational leader William Lessa — the duo also run Sunrise Music House producing custom songs for schools, businesses and individuals —to illustrate the songs. Each tune, set to be released via Instagram and YouTube, will play like an illustrated musical story with panels depicting the canine duo’s adventures and lyrics that families can follow along to.

“The number one priority is to have it be catchy enough that after listening to it for the first or second time, they’re going to have it in their heads,” says Anthony, about the framework for each song, which at a minute or less will be just short and sweet enough for little ones’ attention spans. “Having a universal message that’s inspiring to kids, that promotes good morals and values is important, too.”

A winsome tune about a blueberry pie being swarmed by ants while Wagman & Barkley picnic in the south of France, for instance, is a lesson in sharing.  Another number about a potentially pesky bumble bee landing on one of the dog’s shoulders carries a message of tolerance and a reminder to embrace each other’s differences.

“I’ve been so blessed to have my academy and see how happy music makes kids,” says Anthony. “I just want to bring joy to parents and kids and be a positive influence in their lives.”

Wagman & Barkley will begin sharing their musical lessons in January, with a new video released on YouTube every Friday with an accompanying audio file on Spotify.

Fleisher’s inclusive Teen Lounge offers youth a safe space for self-expression

 

When Aigner LeMay’s mom first suggested to her daughter that she check out the Teen Lounge at Fleisher Art Memorial, the 18-year-old, then in eighth grade, balked.

She figured she had better things to do than hang out in an after-school program making art. But then she entered ninth grade at Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA) and decided the lounge, a free, drop-in creative program for youth 13 to 18, might not be such a bad idea. She began walking to the South Philly art school and gallery when her classes were over.

“It was really strict in school,” says LeMay, who graduated from high school last June. “I like this better because it’s freer.”

Despite graduating, she still makes her way to the lounge when she can, enjoying the creative comfort of a safe, friendly environment where she’s done everything from theater improv to making hula hoops over the last four years.

“I personally believe the arts are an essential part of education that are becoming increasingly difficult to access,” says Layla Ehsan, program coordinator for the Teen Lounge and also a painter and jewelry maker. “Having a program like this that’s free and drop-in is so valuable.

“It’s teen-driven — they make all kinds of decisions that affect the program — and it’s a good social environment. That’s what keeps people coming back.”

That’s also why Scatter Joy Center for the Arts has made the lounge the newest recipient of its Scatter Joy Art Ambassador Grant, which recognizes the individuals and organizations using the arts to make an impact in communities not typically exposed to such resources.

As a former high school art teacher, Scatter Joy founder Kathy Davis recognizes the importance of making arts opportunities available to teens, especially since many students aren’t able to fit art classes into their school day.

Having taken several classes at Fleisher herself, she became interested in the ways the school served its surrounding communities. The nurturing environment of the Teen Lounge instantly appealed to her.

“One of my favorite things is that the students themselves develop the programming by selecting the classes that interest them most. Not only does this give these teens the power to create their own curriculum,” says Davis, “it gives teachers and arts professionals the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these young people.”

The lounge runs three afternoons a week, from 4 to 6 p.m., with a wealth of offerings that include jewelry making, screen-printing, comic illustration, zine creation, pottery, dark room photography and stop-motion animation. The teens get one day of unscheduled free time, where they can draw, do homework, watch a movie or otherwise socialize. No registration is required. Teens from across Philadelphia — some traveling as much as 45 minutes to get there — can simply stop by the front desk and sign in.

“It’s a very accepting community,” says Abigail McClellan, 13, and a student at Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. “Everything’s been really relevant to what I’m interested in. And even if something’s not your favorite subject, you still get to learn new stuff and experiment.”

Though Abigail’s been taking art classes at Fleisher since she was 10, this is her first year coming to the lounge. Several of the teens have previously taken classes or had their parents take classes at the school.

But here the kids have true ownership over the space. The teaching artists they work with all submit proposals for the projects they’d like to teach and then the teens get to pick the projects that most excite them at proposal fairs held during the school year.

Lindsay Robbins, a Philadelphia-based interdisciplinary artist, was among the top vote-getters for the current season with her “Make It Glow” LED electronics workshop. To get the teens to think about how light can be used as a design element in visual art, she is teaching them beginning circuitry and basic soldering.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the tiny jars they’d wired with lighting flashed from a desk in the darkened studio.

“I really like working with teenagers and having a more personal glimpse into that age again,” says Robbins, who is teaching at Fleisher for the first time. “I love that the lounge is run by them and they’re choosing what artists they want to work with.”

Bill Lessa and Kathy Davis (center) present Fleisher Art Memorial Executive Director Elizabeth Grimaldi with a Scatter Joy Ambassador Grant.

Teaching artists get paid $600 plus a $50 materials fee. Being able to share their skills and talents with the kids in the environment fostered in the Teen Lounge is uniquely rewarding.

“To have that safe space that is welcoming of whoever you want to be is vital for people of this age. You can be accepted and feel free to try different ways of expressing your identity. That’s so rare,” says Robbins,

Even the lounge’s community guidelines have been crafted by its youth. They pledge, among other promises, to be mindful of others’ personal space and boundaries, to be inclusive and respectful and to take responsibility for conflicts by listening, offering solutions and engaging in open conversations. What they pledge not to do is just as important: use language or imagery that is in any way discriminatory, offensive, aggressive, or otherwise shaming and intentionally harmful.

“I love the atmosphere. No one judges you,” says one 13-year-old, a home-schooled student who chooses to go by her artist name Queen Proxy. “I love art and I can fit in here as an individual and an artist.”

While she’s “devoting (her) life to art” — “I want to be a renaissance artist. I want to cook, sculpt, bake, paint, do architecture, everything,” she says — not all students share such aspirations.

Aigner is also interested in math and politics and heavily involved in the Philadelphia Student Union. Still, the Teen Lounge is supporting more than her artistic potential.

“There are lots of opportunities to practice leadership here,” says Ehsan, who served as a teaching artist in 2016. “Having a space like this also helps with some of the obstacles that kids might face, like scheduling and a home life that’s hard.”

Fleisher Art Memorial executive director Elizabeth Grimaldi is grateful to have the school recognized for such a unique program that provides a safe space for young artists to express themselves among like-minded peers.

“We are thrilled to be awarded this Scatter Joy Ambassador Grant, which generously supports (our) Teen Lounge program,” she says. “This grant will allow them to continue exploring a wide range of mediums.”

This winter, those will include experimenting with pyrography, ceramic vessels, creative writing and bookmaking.

Scatter Joy Art Ambassador Deborah Ross takes us on a journey to Africa

Deborah Ross, here with the Malagasy Comet Moth

The first time Deborah Ross realized the impact of her work drawing and painting with children in remote African villages, the renowned wildlife artist was collaborating on a book with Dr. Shirley C. Strum, director of the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project in the Laikipia Plateau region of Kenya.

This was in 1997, and the children in the community would crowd around her every time she began painting.

“I needed something to distract them and keep them out of the way. Otherwise, they would just stand there and stare at me, so I gave them paper and paint and they went and did their own paintings, which were really wonderful,” says Ross, who has devoted her career to conservation awareness through her expressive watercolor art.

She remembers one of the young Maasai boys layering on his colors, creating beautiful patterns with his work.

“None of these kids had prior experience. They just go — no inhibitions whatsoever,” says Ross, who never imagined those impromptu art projects would ultimately lead her to offer dozens of art workshops for children in several African countries.

This past summer, we selected Ross as our first Scatter Joy Art Ambassador, providing her with a grant to purchase art supplies for workshops in Madagascar. The New York City illustrator and fine artist, who is also on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts, travels annually to Africa to study and document the people, animals and landscapes there in her light, expressive hand.

Her workshops with the children are a constant source of wonder and delight.

“Often with my other work, I’m just alone working by myself. I do better when painting accompanied,” she says. “I really feed off of community. I get all hyped up. With the kids, there’s all that energy — the fun, the inspiration, the community. It’s really joyful.”

There are also the rewards of providing them with a new tool for self-expression and watching their absorption in the play of paint and paper.

“Because they don’t have computers or eat a lot of sugar, they really concentrate,” she says. “That surprised me from the start, their determination and their absolute focus on what we were doing and their realization of the importance of this work.”

Over the years, she’s received letters from many of her students expressing how much they miss her classes and thanking her for the joy she brought to their lives.

About 10 years ago, when she returned to the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project, a young man assisting on site asked her for paper and pencil.

“He went out and did the most elaborate drawings for me of the baboons and all of their activities — these beautifully layered, very detailed drawings,” says Ross. “I was just awestruck.”

She was convinced he was the very kid who had meticulously layered on color after color in his paintings a decade ago. Though one of the staff members dismissed her insistence, the young man gifted her with his paintings when she was leaving, inviting her to visit his home upon her return.

When she asked where his home was, she discovered he was indeed the boy, all grown up, that she’d remembered — and he’d been eagerly awaiting her return.

“That was a wonderful experience,” she says. “When I visit, some of the kids I taught who are now men will return to see me and come and paint with me.”

This past summer, she spent several weeks in Madagascar teaching children ages 10 and up in the rainforests of Ranomafana National Park, home to 13 lemur species.

Over the years, Ross’ paintings of lemurs and other wildlife in that region have led to assignments with “Natural History Magazine” — her illustration of a fat-tailed lemur appeared on one of its covers — and collaborations with the Lemur Conservation Foundation, for which she illustrated a series of children’s books with primatologist Dr. Allison Jolly.

The books have become central to conservation efforts in Madagascar, where slash and burn agriculture and illegal activities such as gold mining lead to erosion and water shortages that ultimately affect the survival of wildlife in Ranomafana, as well as the preservation of the forests.

Ross blends painting instruction with conservation education in her workshops.

One of the books Ross illustrated with primatologist Dr. Allison Jolly

It is vital, she believes, that the children have a sense of their own ecological identity and the role they can play in preserving the forest habitats where they live.

As a Scatter Joy Art Ambassador, she not only was able to provide art supplies for her workshops over the summer. She also used some of her grant money to help launch a new art curriculum in 12 Malagasy villages in partnership with the School of Visual Arts in the fall.

“I just want these kids to be proud of themselves and get confidence,” she says, “because I know how tricky their lives are going to be.”

The mission remains, the vision expands

Kathy Davis has always been interested in helping to inspire others to find and share joy through the arts. That passion has been a driving force throughout her career as the founder of her namesake greeting card and lifestyle brand.

It was also what fueled the launch of the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts, a nonprofit that made arts programming accessible to all through community classes, exhibits and live performance

That brick and mortar art center may have closed its doors but Scatter Joy still lives on, embodying Kathy’s mission to support the arts. Our social media continues to deliver inspiration and wisdom across multiple arts disciplines while encouraging the individual pursuit of creativity. And our art center now exists as a virtual philanthropic entity.

“Since my days as a high school art teacher, I have seen first-hand the way that art helps to enrich lives. And since then I have been fortunate to discover a career where I can use my creativity to help touch others’ lives in a positive way,” says Kathy. “I truly believe that art makes a difference.”

Scatter Joy continues to do just that with its Scatter Joy Ambassador program, recognizing the individuals and organizations nurturing creativity and using the arts to make an impact in communities not typically exposed to such resources. Its outreach will span local to international efforts.

Already, it has sponsored its first international grant to renowned wildlife artist and teacher Deborah Ross to fund art supplies for children in Madagascar. You can read more about Deborah and her philanthropic outreach in an upcoming blog post.

“While it was thrilling to watch our fledgling arts center make a difference in our own community,” says Kathy, “I am now excited about expanding my vision from local to global.”

Stay tuned to learn more about our upcoming philanthropic commitments and to see how you might play a role in contributing to the good we hope to inspire.

High school freshman Rose Elizabeth to share original songs from new album in debut performance at art center

 

At only 14 years old, Rose Elizabeth, a freshman at Villa Joseph Marie High School, is releasing her debut EP. The budding singer-songwriter, who overcame her fear of singing in public by appearing in several musicals in grade school, will deliver her biggest performance yet when she headlines a concert at the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts on Feb. 11 to celebrate the release of her new country album.

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Calligrapher Meg Kennedy praises art’s ‘scribal energies’

 

This month, we celebrate the art of the well-scripted word. Members of the Philadelphia Calligraphers’ Society will showcase their lettering, painting and ink-drawn images with an exhibit opening Jan. 20 in our farmhouse gallery and running through Feb. 20. 

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An eggshell as his canvas: Eli Bockol channels love of pattern and design into pysanky art

 

imageIt’s a tradition reaching back to antiquity. When Ukrainians first began decorating Easter eggs, the folk art expression known as pysanky was symbolic of creation. The egg was not only considered the source of life but depending on the designs and dyes used to adorn it often served as a talisman or a token of good luck.

Eli Bockol was in college when he saw a televised demonstration of pysanky one Easter. Intrigued by the history, he was even more fascinated by the opportunity to explore geometric design and patterns with the ancient art form. And he’s been creating these batik-style eggs ever since. 

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Lessons from a creative entrepreneur: To fail is to know the measure of our greatness

 

When Sarah Van Aken decided to shutter her contemporary, socially conscious fashion brand SA VA in 2013 after four years, she did so with a transparency, candor and even celebration perhaps unheard of in the industry. There were press releases to the media in which she spoke frankly of her challenges raising capital and equally forthcoming interviews where she acknowledged the personal sacrifices made in pursuit of success. She invited customers new and old to an impressive blow-out sale and cleared the way for fresh energy in her life with a  farewell party in honor of all she’d achieved. 

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