Love where you live!
By PEGGY JUNKER
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Maybe the answer is, “by teaching them” – children, that is. That is what San Diego Artist Penny Quirk has done. She has built a successful business devoted to giving kids the opportunity to discover and cultivate themselves as artists. A job that allows her to continue her own, personal creative development while passing her skills on to the next generation.
Quirk brings more than 2 decades of skill and professional knowledge full circle, right back to…children. Children who are the same age as Quirk was when she decided to be an artist.
“I knew that I wanted to be an artist ever since I was in kindergarten,” says Quirk who later went on to graduate from the Art Institute of Philadelphia, and produce more than 1,000 published works of art.
So why teaching? And why kids? When Quirk has proven herself to be a successful commercial and fine artist? Quirk says the transition happened after volunteering as an art docent at her daughter’s elementary school. She wanted to coordinate an all-school art show, but was told that at that point in the school-year, students could only devote school-time to academics. Seeing the level of interest, Quirk then asked if she could offer classes, free, after school for one week so that the kids could produce enough pieces for the show. She was given the green light and was overwhelmed by the response.
Realizing the need for art in schools and the desire of these children to have art in their lives, Quirk started Art Smarts, Inc., an after-school art program that now employs 13 instructors who teach in 20 San Diego area schools and 2 recreation centers. The program, launched at Murray Manor Elementary School, now serves 9 other schools in the East County area.
The move solidified her future path as both an artist and an art instructor.
Quirk explains, almost with a sense of urgency, “I’ve got to pass this (her knowledge) on. For me, it would have been selfish if I would have kept the information to myself and just been an artist.”
With annual school budgets for the arts dwindling alarmingly, Quirk’s classes may be an oasis for the art-starved youth. She says she offers them another way to view things. By keeping her presentations fresh, even unpredictable at times, she encourages students to keep their minds open. She begins one class by throwing stuffed animals at her unsuspecting students. This is clearly not your standard teaching approach, and kids react by meeting her enthusiasm with their own. Another class uses large canvases and Jackson Pollock-style splash-paint to engage kids.
“This is abstract expressionism,” says Quirk of one of her most popular lessons. “There are no mistakes here. It doesn’t have to look like an apple. It doesn’t have to look like anything.”
Not only does Quirk encourage her students to experience new ways of making art, but she emphasizes that there are no criteria for her assignments. “We’re not here to say ‘this is right, and this is wrong’,” explains Quirk. “If they need to do it their way, I say ‘you’re the artist,’ that kind of empowers them...I always try to encourage them, tell them that there are no rules in art. You can never do wrong in art,” explains Quirk. “If you make a mistake, you can correct it…turn it into something else.”
Keeping classes relevant also keeps them compelling for Quirk’s students. Instructors for Art Smarts, Inc. middle schoolers found that students were drawing Manga, grafitti-sytle and urban art projects on their own. The interest in these contemporary forms of art was so strong Quirk says she decided to incorporate them into her program and gave instructors the go-ahead to broaden their approach to explore these styles as well as the more classic methods.
Describing her own artwork as “Scientificinterdimentionalsurrealism,” Quirk names surrealists Salvador Dalí, M.C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch among those whose work she most admires as well as friends and local artists, Rosemary Valente, a featured artist at Artwalk and Helen Osbun.
“When you teach kids you get this energy,” says Quirk of her students. “They give you hugs, they give you feedback. It’s just the best feeling ever.”
For more information on Art Smarts, Inc. or to see Quirk’s student gallery, go to www.ArtSmarts.net.
Peggy Junker is a La Mesa resident and a contributing writer to LaMesaToday.com. Photos are courtesy of her husband, Gary Junker