"To do art with a trained art professional, and other children, I think is a really wonderful opportunity," Visser said.
Launched in 2021 with a grant from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund, the Pacific Art League's Free Expressive Art Open Studio Sessions have made uncommon materials and professional instruction more accessible to the Peninsula community.
The Pacific Art League, founded in 1921, serves the Bay Area by hosting workshops and classes, along with showcasing local artists' work in its gallery. In 2021, the League estimated that it served 2,500 students of all ages and backgrounds.
The vision for these free three-hour sessions began in response to the pandemic, Pacific Art League's executive director, Aly Gould, said. Many local parents expressed concerns for their children's socialization and mental health after the pandemic shut down many art classes and after school programs.
"Kids were done with online classes, and they needed a space to meet friends physically," Gould said. "There was definitely a need for kids to be able to connect to art and with their friends."
Hosting 20-30 children, each session gives kids freedom to work alone on whatever they would like, with a group or with the help of instructor Sam Marks, a Los Altos native who also works at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. During each session, he walks around the room, checking in, answering questions and giving tips on technique.
"He's just a really kind person who understands the kids and is able to connect with them," Gould said. "He has a very empathetic teaching style."
Marks told the Weekly that he tries to be engaging with the students. He does not assign anything specific, however; he just introduces the group to materials like paints, brushes, pencils, tissue paper or clay and then encourages them to create by checking in every few minutes.
"Selfishly, as an art teacher, I love to see what kids are working on," Marks said. "It's really cool to make my rounds and see things develop."
Marks said the younger children at these sessions often need the most input at the start, but he often sees kids get more comfortable and independent as they get to know the medium and the other kids.
"It's cool to see kids open up during these sessions," he said.
Jasmine Tang, a Mountain View resident who has taken her 12-year-old daughter Alexie to several sessions at the Pacific Art League, said Marks is more flexible and creates a friendlier environment than other art teachers.
"Teacher Sam is very polite and respectful and not very imposing or egotistic," Tang said after staying to watch Alexie's first few sessions.
One example of Marks' teaching style paying off, Tang said, was near the end of 2021, when Alexie brought a photo of her dog, Marlin, to draw in a cartooning-themed session.
Although Alexie was nervous and hesitant at first, Tang said, Marks coached and encouraged her, teaching her how to capture details like the eyes and the nose.
"I could sense that my daughter wants to draw to make sure that she doesn't get criticized for what she draws," Tang said. "So it was pretty amazing to see that."
By the end of the session, Alexie had finished a cartoon of Marlin that she was happy with, and it is on display on the wall of her room to this day.
Marks said his role is to take kids' fear away and let them know that it's OK to be nervous trying something new.
"By the end of the class, (Alexie) knew she could do it just as much as I knew she could do it at the beginning of the class, which was really awesome," Marks said. "And it was also a really cute cartoon dog, so that's an added bonus."
Along with giving parents a night out with their spouses or friends, the Free Expressive Art Open Studio Sessions give kids a chance to get to know each other.
When picking up her daughters from a session, Visser found her eldest daughter talking with another girl she hadn't met before, asking if she would also come to the session next month as they were cleaning up their art projects.
"It was nice to see a potential friendship blossoming as they were doing art side by side, not having met each other before," Visser said.
Visser later learned that this new friend lives in Mountain View and goes to a different school. These two kids may have never had the chance to meet without the free art sessions.
"That was an added benefit of this type of program, where it's not necessarily the kids in our immediate school district or town," she said. "There's an opportunity for them to branch out."
Marks highlighted this social aspect of the sessions as particularly important, especially after the pandemic, during which kids interacted with phones or computers much more than other children their age.
"Even for me, I feel like I'm out of practice in social situations," he said. "I can't imagine being a kid nowadays, being locked up for so long and then thrown back into it."
Although these social interactions can be awkward, Marks said, it's easier to get to know other kids while working on art together.
"You're both working along the same lines, and there's an instant connection there," he said.
In the future, Gould said, the Pacific Art League will use funding from the Holiday Fund and other community support to expand its free youth programs, as well as experiment with using a similar model to engage local seniors.
"I'm just super grateful for what this grant turned into," she said. "It really was a seedling for a wonderful program and a wonderful idea."
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