Every Artist was First an Amateur

Art classes for adults in Columbia

A pottery student takes a class at Southern Pottery on Devine.

Photography by Jeff Amberg

For many, art classes conjure up memories of middle school, that awkward time in life when people rarely feel comfortable in their own skin and when the idea of drawing or painting in front of peers seems like the last legal form of torture. But many adults in the Midlands are discovering that the opportunity to become artists was not lost to those long ago days of adolescence.

Anne Hightower-Patterson teaches watercolor classes at City Art, located in the Vista, and has been instructing adults since 1983. “In my classes, I see so many folks who have wanted to do art for their entire lives but waited until they retired to start,” Anne says. “The desire to create is a spirit which is strong in many people, and it is mentally healthy to take time for personal pursuits. By filling that need, you can return to your normal life with a fresher attitude to take care of the family or deal with the stresses of work.”

Art classes offer the chance for adults at any stage in life to try something new and be given direction in their endeavors. Often the hardest part is just knowing where to start. City Art offers a myriad of classes, including oil painting, watercolor painting, oil stick, calligraphy, drawing, book making, plein air and many more.

“For beginners who are interested in art, our instructors help them break down barriers and get comfortable in their artistic skin,” says Randy Hanna, owner of City Art. “Many of our students are ‘normal people’ looking to express themselves through painting or drawing and need a little guidance and support or just a jumping off point. They are usually afraid, but after the first class, they feel empowered. They learn some tricks that help them get started so that they no longer fear failure, and after those barriers are broken down, there is no limit.”

Randy says that people often offer the excuse that they cannot even draw a stick figure. “Why would anyone want to?” he says with a laugh. “There are no grades here. Everyone can benefit on some level from throwing some paint around and switching from the logical left side of the brain to the creative right side. Art encourages right brain experiences that allow us to use all of our senses to conquer problems in more creative ways. Art unlocks our other side, so to speak.”

Anne and Randy agree that art classes can serve as an escape from the humdrum pace of life and offer camaraderie in a safe environment to learn. “Sometimes an artist’s life can be a lonely world,” says Randy. “Many painters find that the group setting of a class offers encouragement, critique and gives them new ideas, plus the value of learning new skills.”

According to Leslie Pierce, associate director of Public Programs and Community Relations at the Columbia Museum of Art, the most difficult hurdle for most adults to clear is the fear of failing in front of others. “Adult students are much more self conscious than children so it takes a little more coaxing to get them to put brush to canvas. Once they get past the initial shock of the newness, though, they fall into that great Zen space and lose themselves in the creative process.”

Leslie notes that children and adults consistently face the same challenges in art classes, as they both are new to the materials and the vocabulary, but both tend to have the same youthful enthusiasm to tackle the task at hand. “It is just amazing, but the look on an adult’s face is exactly the same as a 6-year-old’s when pulling a print for the first time,” she says.

Students come to Anne’s classes with varying abilities and experiences. While some have painted quite a while, for others it will be the first time they have pursued any type of painting. “It really doesn’t matter,” Anne says, “because at all levels of experience there is room to grow. I like to say that I will take the student where he or she is and go from there. If the desire to paint is in you, but you don’t know where to start, then taking an art class is the best thing for you.”

Some of Anne’s favorite memories are of the students who found painting as a pathway to a whole new life and career. Several of her students ended up leaving their jobs to become full-time artists, pursuing life-long dreams.

“One of my students had his painting featured on the cover of American Artist Magazine with an article inside about his work; a couple of others have become successful teachers in their own right. I have made many dear and lifelong friends from my art students. I have learned from them as well. Some of my best tips were brought to me by students, but the life lessons sometimes have been stronger.”

As a life-long artist, Anne’s passion for art and giving that gift to others is contagious. “As an artist I am compelled to create — it is part of my being. Most artists are like this where creating is just as important as breathing. I know there are those out there who feel this way and don’t know what to do with it. That is when it is time to take an art class and feed that part of the spirit.”

Leslie’s favorite aspect part of the classes offered at the Columbia Museum of Art is the level of artistic diversity. “I just love that we are able to offer such a multitude of processes and techniques,” she says. “We offer the basics so students have a chance to learn the fundamentals and build on them, but we also offer alternative classes like ‘Learn to Make a Purse in a Day.’ We recently offered ‘Learn to Draw: In the Spirit of Ink’ with artist Tonya Gregg. This was a mix of painting and drawing, which was a great success.”

The Columbia Museum of Art offers a plethora of different classes, including painting (acrylic, Flemish, oil, watercolor, pen and ink, plein air), printmaking (monotype, linoleum cuts, etching), ceramics, fused glass, paper making, knitting, figure drawing, basic drawing, photography and others.

“Creativity is central to everyday life, and art is central to creativity. Art drives imagination, innovation and understanding of a bigger world,” says Leslie. “At the Columbia Museum of Art, we seek to inspire and connect people to their creativity by offering life-long learning opportunities for pleasure and personal growth and collaborating with artists to offer learning and teaching experiences.”

Leslie recalls one occasion when an instructor came from New York City to teach a weekend workshop and refused to leave the hotel until Leslie could find her a hairdresser. “This was in my early days as an employee at the museum. Now I am no longer phased by the bizarre requests we get from artists, lecturers and musicians,” she says with a laugh.

Mike Dwyer has been teaching at the Columbia Museum of Art for a number of years, most notably offering his popular figure drawing class. He believes that art can add tremendously to quality of life, whether one is making or experiencing it. “I’ve been making art all my life,” he says. “I was lucky that both my parents were artists and they gave me a ton of encouragement and support. If I go too long without working in the studio, I start to get squirrely. I guess it keeps me tolerable and gives me something to look at.”

Mike says teaching art and being involved in the group dynamics of a classroom makes creativity that much better. “I find art thrilling, and I like the challenge of communication that I find in the classroom. Being able to see the improvement in someone’s ability, as it happens, is a real pleasure for me. And there is often a spirit of camaraderie and support in the adult classes. When people are involved in the creation of art, they are operating in a realm in which there is the potential for very deep and intimate communication with others.”

The classes at the museum are generally small enough that instructors can provide a high level of personal attention, tailoring adjustments to each class and catering to each individual’s ability.

Often the biggest challenge Mike sees for adults in taking art classes is the commitment to carving out the time. “No one ever has enough,” he says. “But even a little time devoted to making art can be rewarding. Art classes can give adults that push they might need to try something new. If a workshop is just one day or four Wednesday nights, it isn’t too much of a commitment and can give budding artists the encouragement they need to pursue a lifelong passion. The other challenge adults sometimes face is the wrong stuff they’ve learned in the past. People are born creative, but starting around age 5, most begin to get their natural tendency toward free, lively creativity quashed. Sometimes adults have to unlearn some things before moving on. The upside of that is that total novices tend to be very open-minded, which is a great asset.”

The Columbia Museum of Art houses what has become a very popular art group, About Face, which started 20 years ago as a group of artists who pooled their funds to pay for a live model, and that is still what it remains to be to this day. Beginners, amateurs and professional artists are all welcome to attend. The drawing sessions are held on the first and third Mondays of every month from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The second and fourth Tuesdays of each month feature portrait drawing from 6 to 8 p.m. and figure drawing from 7:15 to 9:15 p.m.

“You do not need to join the museum or About Face to participate, though you do get a bit of a discount on drawing sessions if you are a member of the museum. There is no instructor — About Face remains a group of artists of varying skills sharing a live model. You must be over 18 to participate, and the first visit is always free. After that, Monday sessions are $12, or $10 for members. Tuesday sessions are $10, or $8 for members. Students are $5,” explains Leslie.
Bri Kinard, owner and co-founder with Virginia Scotchie of Redbird Studio on Rosewood Drive, started Redbird to offer a creative venue where both experienced and budding artists could dive into ceramics, metal and mixed media forms of art. They also represent regional artists not widely recognized in the community.

“It is a great joy to teach adults who come to the studio, whether they have a background in art or not,” says Bri. “Many adults will say, ‘I can’t even draw a straight line,’ but this is not important in making art. Loosening up, feeling free to express yourself through clay, being creative and enjoying yourself while doing so is what we promote in our adult studio classes. We teach a class called ‘Beginners Night’ which is only a one-night class. Many students love the class and then sign up for a six-week session, which meets one night a week. We also have open studio on Saturdays where adults can come in and work on the potter’s wheel or hand build in clay with professional attention and assistance.”

Redbird includes all the needed supplies with the classes, including equipment, tools, clay, glazes and glaze firing.

“Art is very important to the culture of the Midlands,” says Bri. “The Midlands has a strong history of art, especially in the area of clay, with many great potters and sculptural artists working in this region. Adult art classes provide an opportunity for individuals to pursue the adventure of art making at a personal and social level. We believe the power of creative collaboration and focused time together results in new thinking and artistic growth for everyone.”

Donna Green, owner of Southern Pottery, started drawing and doing various crafts as a child, and it was in her first ceramics class right after college that she developed a love for pottery. “While I have collected pottery over the years, it wasn’t until moving to Columbia in 2006 and the purchase of Southern Pottery that clay became a way of life. I love having beautiful hand-crafted things in my life. Since leaving the corporate world, I now feel like I am where I belong,” she says.

Southern Pottery offers adult pottery classes in wheel-throwing and hand building, as well as workshops and artist demonstrations several times a year. They collaborate with the City of Columbia Art Center to do Raku workshops in the spring and fall.

“I have had several students tell me that pottery classes are cheaper than therapy and a lot more fun,” Donna says. “No one is too young or too old for clay, and the only requirement is an open mind and flexible expectations. I think everyone needs to tap into their creative side, especially those who don’t think they have a creative side. We all do deep down inside.”

The instructors at Southern Pottery very much shape the studio. Both Paul Moore and Diane Gilbert have been teaching at Southern Pottery for more than seven years and are known to be awesome instructors, not to mention amazing artists. Paul teaches the wheel throwing classes while Diane teaches hand building, and they have even combined their talents at times to create collaborative works of art.

Very few supplies are required to work with clay, and Southern Pottery provides basic tools to students when they take a class. A lot of common items work well as tools when working with clay, especially kitchen tools. Textures can be added to clay using everything from tree bark to fabrics to soles of rubber shoes. “You are limited only by your imagination,” Donna says.

Donna believes that offering pottery classes through her studio is a true community service. “The equipment is expensive, and ceramics is not an art form that is easy for individuals to pursue on their own. It is labor intensive and can be time consuming, which also makes it very rewarding. Having talented instructors simply enhances the experience,” she says.

Anne too shares this opinion of the role art classes play in the community as a whole. She explains that offering art to the community is more important than just giving adults a new hobby, saying that an artistic community is a healthy one.
“I truly believe when business and industry look for a community in which to invest, the richness of the arts is a strong influencing factor. Visual art is just one slice of the artistic pie. Music, dance, theatre, writing and architecture, along with the visual arts, have a huge impact on the economics of a city. In the last few years, I have seen the Midlands burst forth with a stronger visual arts community. Adult art classes invite residents to dive into the ever-growing pool of art experiences to enrich their own individual lives, as well. Adults only need to plug into the right spot to have an opportunity to fill their creative muse.”

And there are plenty of opportunities to plug in to one’s artistic side here in the Midlands. In addition to the terrific exhibitions and classes available, there are a variety of other artistic outlets from films to lectures, concerts to parties. Along with the Tapp’s Art Center and other art studios downtown, Columbia offers gallery crawls, theatrical offerings and studio tours. “Artista Vista” is stronger than ever, and Sandhills and Lexington have also developed a plethora of art events.

“I’m a big fan of the Arts & Draughts events which combine gallery tours, really great bands, DIY activities, plus awesome food and beer. It’s possibly the best party in town,” says Mike.

“Making art feels like I’m doing something that really matters,” he explains. “Not that the world needs my art, but it certainly needs art and when you seriously enter into making it you become part of an incredibly long, rich tradition.”
After all, in the words of Pablo Picasso, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

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