Tulsa Girls Art School encourages students to foster artistic abilites

Changing lives one painting at a time is the focus of the Tulsa Girls Art School.

The group uses art to help young girls paint a new future and for professional artists and volunteers to create a special place to nurture artistic talent.

PHOTOS: Tulsa Girls Art School

Frances Armah and her classmates are learning the language of art. Armah sounds more like an adult than a fourth grader when she describes her latest creation.

"I'm working on a mystical bunny. She is supposed to be in the woods and it's a fairytale-like bunny," said Francis Armah, 10, a student from Mayo Demonstration Academy. "I always like to think creatively and outside the box to find things that I like."

Armah added, "Getting creative with what you work with, mostly ... and focusing and finding something that's not too hard and not too easy so it's in the middle."

Currently, 60 elementary, middle and high school students are enrolled at the Tulsa Girls Art School (TGAS), which operates in a former storefront west of 3rd and Lewis in midtown.

Executive Director Matt Moffett, who co-founded the program, and his staff select a different elementary school each year and enroll 12 third grade students in the weekly, after school art program.

Inside the old building, Moffett, a professional artist, and volunteer artists and teachers help the students learn techniques in twelve different mediums ranging from water colors and oil painting to ceramics, fiber arts and glass blowing.

"We just do a lot of different mediums that a lot of people don't get to do until they are in college. I believe that any age child can learn at any rate, so we do really big things," Matt Moffett said.

He believes children from struggling families tend to have fewer choices in life, which often steals their childhood. So, he came up with a program that merges creativity and imagination with business and planning skills to help the students consider different careers and futures.

If the family needs help, Moffett helps connect them with community agencies and programs.

"We are trying to break that cycle, bring them to a safe haven," he said. "There is no bullying. There is no judgment. They just learn how to be a selling visual artist."

Sales and business are key parts of the after school art lessons.

TGAS students hold three art shows each year. Two-thirds of the money raised goes toward program expenses. One-third of the proceeds are placed into a micro savings account for each young artist. They can use the money to purchase supplies for home use at nearby Ziegler's art supply store. All of the art supplies and tools used in class, even the snacks provided, are free to students.

The girls quickly learn that practice pays off. Lovay Yerton, a 10-year old from Sequoyah Elementary told 2 Works for You, "I've gotten really good because I keep practicing and practicing."

After eight years in the TGAS program, Saleen Eshelman, 18, is considered an advanced art student. As a high school senior, she will graduate from the program next May. After school, every day, she works feverishly on creations for her own, one woman art show. Every dollar Saleen earns, she will take with her to college.

"You want people to see something and be able to put it in their home," Saleen Eshelman said. "Having somebody want to see that every single day, having that ownership of it, it just means everything. That not only you can enjoy but that everyone else can enjoy, too. That's the whole purpose, I feel like."

Since the school opened in 2007, five girls have stayed through their elementary, middle school and high school years to graduate from the Tulsa Girls Art School. Throughout their years with the program, becoming an artist who sells their work, remains their primary focus ... though a lifelong appreciation of art is also encouraged.

"One of our girls was the valedictorian for Webster High School and she sold 25 pieces. She made $5,400. We cut her a check for the full amount and then everything that was in her account we used to set up her own checking account and she's going to OSU right now."

Saleen, like many of the girls, now plans to explore a professional career in art and teaching with the help of the skills and confidence gained in eight years at TGAS.

"It makes me more confident knowing people are liking my work and what I'm putting out there. So it's just a big confidence booster that I can use to - I don't want to say express myself really, but rather to release myself into my artwork. It's nice," Saleen said. "You are you. So just be yourself and enjoy what you are doing. I've really gotten that concept from here."

It is a concept for life that begins with their first self-portrait on paper. After just a few lessons, the students see their true potential revealed on canvas.

Sarah Pester, 9, held up her latest portrait with pride, saying, "That we have to concentrate on the art to make it perfect like this one is!"

Perfect plans for little ones learning that art can open up a whole new world, even open the doors to college. Every summer, a small group of TGAS students travel to a distant city to explore major art museums and universities. Recent trips to Chicago and San Francisco, paid for by community foundations and corporations, amazed many of the students who have never left the city limits of Tulsa.

"We always visit higher education places, colleges, art schools just to say this is available for you and this is what the world has to offer," Moffett said.

2 Works for You anchor Karen Larsen asked Joy Crow, 9, what she thought it would be like to go to college. Crow responded, "I don't know but I think it would be pretty amazing!"

Currently, plans are being developed to grow TGAS and expand the studio so the program can help even more children in need. With 60 students enrolled right now, Moffett knows he "can't save the whole population of children in need but I can save 60 kids right now and that is really great."

As for students like Frances, they are certain about their future plans.

"I've always told my mom that I want to be an artist when I grow up." Frances said firmly.

The Tulsa Girls Art School holds its annual fundraiser, Thursday, November 12 to raise funds for supplies and the summer trips for students.

The theme of "Through a Child's Eye Gala" is Inspiring Individuality: The Addams Family. For more information on the gala and the program, CLICK HERE. 

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