Friday, March 18, 2011

The Art of Paying it Forward

“We need to make the invisible children…visible.”
 - Barbara Chandler Allen, Founder and Executive Director of Fresh Artists.

I used to believe the most profound experience, for a human being, was that of truly being visible to the world – when our authentic self steps directly into the spotlight and in that moment we are, finally, initiated into life. However, after a recent encounter with the founder of Philadelphia’s Fresh Artists, I now believe there may be something we can do that carries us beyond initiation; driving us well down the brightest and most powerful path of our entire life’s journey:  Making others visible to the world.

 

Her name is Barbara Chandler Allen. In a word, she is hope personified. We first met at Weavers Way, a charmingly unique co-op in Chestnut Hill, PA. She stood in the produce aisle holding a few samples of original “2nd grade” artwork. “Oh…did you see the trout picture over the deli counter?” she asked excitedly - her spirit as bright as the chartreuse splattered walls. In a single breath I knew that this was not only going to be an inspiring day, but that this vibrant woman (62 years young!), with a remarkable blend of warmth and wit…was riding high and steady on the waves of her life’s work; her legacy to the world. Hanging in the backdrop was a magical glimpse of the story that would soon unfold.

“The concept was first conceived at the kitchen table five years ago,” she began. Barbara, a former administrator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and her son and Fresh Artists’partner, Roger, a successful industrial designer, had just learned of the budget cuts in Philadelphia’s public school district. Already grossly under resourced, there was little doubt that arts education would take the greatest hit. “Now…how will they shine? Who will know of their greatness?” she worried.

As a lifelong advocate for arts education, noting its profound effect on her own life, Barbara’s heart ached for the dimming educational future of these young children. No supplies for creative thinking was a tough blow indeed, but to Barbara this denial would resonate at a much deeper level; stunting their creative spirits and leaving them even more vulnerable as they are left to scrape crumbs from the table of imagination. But there was one thought that was by far most distressing, “How will these children know that they have something to give to the world?” She wisely adds, “this skill of creative thinking, after all, is the seed of innovation”.

But for these youth, childhood was now primed to, perhaps, be the most barren season of their lives. Then, while sipping coffee with Roger, something happened. “I had an epiphany,” she said...cheerfully adding, “I seem to have a lot of those these days.” She then explained how she suddenly realized that although these children may, at the moment, be deprived of artistic expression …they were not powerless.

They could, in fact, help each other.

Why couldn’t children give to other children through art? As it turns out…no reason at all. Shortly thereafter, with the help of a few enthusiastic teachers and classrooms full of fresh, young, creative minds, Fresh Artists, the youth-driven philanthropic endeavor - the first of its kind - was born.

“It is a totally new model of nonprofit,” Barbara says with enthusiasm. “We have figured out how to combine a worthy cause with good business. We’ve identified a vital need and we’ve identified a product that is unique and desirable - good artwork.”

The extraordinary artwork is identified and donated by K-12 children in public schools for a truly head-spinning collection (as I confirmed more than once…are you sure this was painted by an eight year old?). It is comprised of varied mediums and currently totals over five hundred pieces. The chosen artwork is then photographed at high resolution and licenses are signed by the child and their guardian. The digital image then becomes part of the Fresh Artists Collection and can be digitally printed in any one of three large sizes (creatively dubbed Papa Bear (6' x 9'), Momma Bear (40" x 60"), Baby Bear (30" x 40"). The reproductions are mounted on sturdy presentation boards for installing on corporate walls. The original artwork is promptly returned to the child artist and belongs to the child forever. They may do whatever they wish with it: put it on the refrigerator, give it to Aunt Maude, or even throw it away!

Corporations, universities, individuals or any organization in need of livening up their d├ęcor - make a cash donation to Fresh Artists for the much needed school art supplies and innovative art programs. As a “thank you” gift, the donor, in turn, chooses a work of art from the Fresh Artists’ collection for their walls. Voila! Corporate offices are beautified all across the country, while the shelves of public schools are filled with brand new art supplies!

With astounding results, this grass roots endeavor has now blossomed into an award-winning model for student-centered civic engagement as well as the promotion of arts education. Thus far, there are 750 large photo blow-ups out in the world, and Fresh Artists has delivered over $120,000.00 worth of art supplies to the Philadelphia public schools.

In summarizing the uniqueness of the nonprofit model, Barbara says, “it has all of the right components. Everyone gets involved. Children are philanthropists as much as the corporate donors and companies take ownership of the artwork as much as the children. They are all proud to tell the story.”

But, as I see it, Fresh Artists is giving a gift with a powerful ripple effect - reaching far past the edge of the white corporate walls. They are, in fact, opening an entirely new world of possibility for tens of thousands of children…one art lesson at a time. And in a very real way they are likely changing their futures… as I write these very words.

As the afternoon sun disappeared, our day ending all too soon, I slowly made my way down the cobblestone walkways of Chestnut Hill, smiling at strangers and feeling richer for having made the acquaintance of Barbara Allen. And then, I had an epiphany (of which I hope to have more of these days). I thought of how Barbara embodied the single most significant trait shared by every classic work of art – she is unforgettable. Then, I turned back to the page of the Fresh Artists story that, for me, encapsulates the very essence of its mission and of its founder. It was the moment just before parting ways, when Barbara leaned forward and spoke directly into my Sony-Mini - giving her final declaration; her legacy to world and to its “unseen” children:

These children are here. And yes, they are vulnerable. But they have promise, and mostly they are creative and brilliant…and they can learn. We need to try to change the way people regard vulnerable children. We need education reform and we all need to try harder. We need to make invisible children…visible.

(For more information log onto http://www.freshartists.org/ Photos by Joan Cimino Photography: joansphoto@comcast.net)