Little Red Barn for Artistic Youth

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Little Red Barn for Artistic Youth

If, as Lailah Gifty Akita says: "We only radiate the inner self," Sophia and Bill Brubaker must have been born artists. They continue to radiate their true passion for art education with insight, exuberance and purpose.

On their 25th Wedding Anniversary, they quite literally ran around The Louvre on what Bill describes as an ‘Art March'… Sophia's bucket-list of the most iconic pieces of art that Paris could offer; researched and planned in just two days after Bill surprised her with tickets to Paris. "Instead of the lunch I had anticipated at a beautiful little Parisian bistro, we ate cafeteria sandwiches as fast as we could!” A love of art is universal and clearly transcends the barrier of language. “I couldn't speak more than a few words of French, and I am sure it wouldn't be allowed now, but I was able to charm the guard into allowing us to stay in the final gallery just a few minutes past closing time." Bill beams – it would seem that Sophia got to cross one last statue off her list; and Bill’s surprise made up for the twenty-five-year delay in their honeymoon plans, due to last-minute change in his orders at the Coast Guard Academy.

In 2003 Sophia found herself at a turning point in her life. She had earned her B.A. in studio art at Wesleyan University and a certification to teach art in grades K-12. She had spent her career making the best of art rooms (or mobile art carts) wherever Bill's Coast Guard career took them from Minnesota to Alaska and from kindergarten thru high school. "I've seen the best of programs … and the worst;" she says with a smile.

When Bill's career brought them back to Sophia's native Niantic she enrolled in a graduate program at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her peers in that program were a vibrant mix of museum educators, teachers, and community arts educators. They infused her with a diversity of perspectives, and inspired her to develop her own vision of a Community Arts Education Program.

Now Sophia faced a choice: Continue to fight for art to have equal standing in the time and resource-squeezed curriculum of most public schools, or try something different. With a small inheritance from Bill's mother, the Brubakers converted a barn on their property into a light and inviting studio; and so the Barn for Artistic Youth (BAY) was born.

The philosophy behind the BAY is to offer a continuity of art education, with excellent resources, through a program that gives students dedicated time to explore their talent. Most sessions are two hours, enabling them to learn a new concept, practice, ‘make happy mistakes' learn from their findings, try again and succeed at a new skill.

"Art is critical to a child's growth: fine motor skill development and concentration; creativity leading to ‘out of the box' problem-solving; and the ability to process the world around them and ‘verbalize' sometimes confusing or scary emotions or situations.” Bill still talks fondly of his time in private art classes as a five-year-old growing up in Idaho, a state that offered no public kindergarten at that time. “Through those classes, he had the time and freedom to explore and learn, and that is what we wanted to recreate here," explains Sophia.

From pre-K thru high school, mommy/daddy and me, and adults, 60-80 students a year take age-appropriate classes which combine sequential learning and development of hands-on skills with a historical, cultural, and increasingly digital perspective. Younger students not only learn the basics and absorb "spoon-fulls of art history," they become knowledgeable in their use of supplies and relish taking care of their equipment. They are as likely to find inspiration in the display units filled with large-format Andy Warhol and Van Gough posters as they are in a treasure-filled library cart of coffee-table books on artists from Cezanne to Skoglund. A collection of stuffed ducks and decoys provides inspiration for their students' annual entries into the Junior Federal Duck-Stamp Competition: to design a stamp that mimics the one issued by the United States federal government that must be purchased prior to hunting for migratory waterfowl such as ducks and geese. "Although we’ve had winning entries at many levels, we have yet to win ‘Best of Show.’ But I know we will," says Sophia as she leafs through a box of last year's entries complete with ribbons of commendation.

Like an artistic equivalent of the slow-cooking movement, the barn is also a haven for artists of all ages to experiment in an unrushed, supportive, and non-judgmental space. "We sometimes find that our students have lost confidence, perhaps returning to art in high school having last practiced for only a few trimesters in middle school." They liken art to music and to sport. Nobody would expect a High School flutist to make 1st flute in wind-ensemble without having had a continuum of lessons through school and private music classes. "Why should art be different? In middle schools, the art program is often one or two six-week rotations sandwiched between computing, life skills and health. How can we expect artists to step straight back into the studio in high school with the confidence to produce their very best work?"

Despite limitations imposed upon art programs in public schools, the Brubakers value their close connections with school educators, providing the additional support students may need to successfully apply to the top art and design schools in the country. "We know that students will compare themselves to their peers, and that can work in a positive or a negative way. By giving our students the time and space to learn outside of their normal peer group, we can help boost their confidence and thereby raise the bar for art in all educational settings."

BAY is truly a family affair. Along with their daughter Kathryn, an art teacher at St. John's School in Old Saybrook and former student Justine Buckley, both BFA graduates of Lyme Academy College of Fine Art, they offer summer camps and year-round classes to students of all ages. Allie Dearie, a graphic design and digital imaging graduate from Highpoint University in North Carolina is a recent addition to the BAY family. After he retired from a career in the Coast Guard, Bill also headed off to RISD to pursue studies specializing in 2-D Portfolio Photography. Over time, this has provided an invaluable additional service to the BAY's senior students and their parents.

"Most parents do not know where to start to help their child when it comes to applying to art schools." smiles Sophia. “Students travel to the BAY from Mystic and Madison, New London and Norwich. Our catchment area is basically as far as a parent's tolerance for driving." In return, the Brubakers bring college admissions officers to the barn; support students and parents through National Portfolio Day; facilitate entries into Scholastic Art competitions and help curate, print and mat, then digitize and upload award-winning portfolios and write college recommendations. "It's just like college sports – we are supporting our students through the college recruitment process in the same way a basketball or soccer coach supports their players." And for some students, the financial reward of being recruited to art school is just as substantial.

To round off the holistic nature of their program, Bill teaches his students to create their own stretchers and mats in his workshop below the studio. He continues to teach law at Avery Point and encourages BAY seniors to become familiar with the basic laws of copyright and artistic royalties and take pride in the ownership of their intellectual property. Some prefer rules and order – they tend to go into industrial, digital and graphic arts. Others prefer the pull of a free-flowing career in sculpture or painting.

We look through a pile of senior portfolio DVDs and the Brubakers talk about each student, as would proud grandparents: where they came from, where they went and where their artistic passion lay. Bill talks of one student who studied industrial design at Rochester Institute of Technology. Having won a national shoe design competition, he went on to work for Reebok and another who decided late in his high school career that he wanted to do architecture but had no portfolio and few basic drawing skills. The DVD chronicles his journey from enthusiastic wannabe to accepted architecture major at Roger Williams University.

As I leave I look back at the little red barn; if a building can radiate it's inner-self, then the BAY is a veritable colony of artists in the making.

Published online and in print June 2017