by Zinta Aistars
(Published in the September 2005 issue of Encore magazine, Kalamazoo, Michigan.)
"Any weekday afternoon or Saturday you can find them… aspiring young artists rushing past with arms full of tackle boxes and portfolios as they excitedly enter a brightly lit studio…"
—Kirk Lowis, director of SWMVAA
How many tongs on a fork? No fair looking in the silverware drawer. Bring up the image of a fork in your mind. Can you see it? Can you see how many tongs?
"It’s surprising how many people see and yet don’t see," says Kirk Lowis, 37-year-old founder and director of the Southwest Michigan Visual Arts Academy (SWMVAA) in Kalamazoo. "We look at things, at people, at the world around us every day, but we fail to see. The artist is one who has learned to see."
Kirk Lowis teaches very young artists how to see as most do not. Growing up in an artistic family, he never lacked for encouragement to explore his creativity, but when Kirk sought art classes in his school and community, he found very little that went beyond the basics.
"I was a creative kid who was looking for a mentor willing to make a commitment to the developing artist," he says. "Sure, I could find art classes in one area or another. School offered beginning art classes. But I was frustrated that I couldn't find a place to explore art in a long-term and cumulative manner. I swore someday I would do something about it."
Before that someday arrived, Kirk pursued his education. While still in high school, he spent time in England and Wales with a touring theatre company, learning theatre design. After high school, he trained at North Carolina School of the Arts, then transferred to Kalamazoo College where he majored in art.
"At Kalamazoo College, I had to prepare a body of work as part of my graduation requirements. In fact, I did two: one project in performance art and the other an exhibit of paintings. Putting together that kind of body of work helped me to develop my style and find my voice."
Kirk earned his master's in art at Goucher College in Maryland, then returned to Kalamazoo, taking a teaching position at The Montessori School of Kalamazoo. The Montessori method: work autonomously, hands-on, and be an independent thinker.
"Working at the Montessori school was a fantastic opportunity," Kirk says. "The best teaching happens when you are learning yourself. I brought the Montessori method to art, and in 1990, I opened the Southwestern Michigan Visual Arts Academy in the Dewing Building, downtown Kalamazoo. I was ready to keep that promise to myself to fill the void I had encountered as an art student."
Initially, Kirk worked both at The Montessori School and at SWMVAA. The new academy was established as a non-profit school, and for nearly five years Kirk's time was unpaid. He spent his free time looking for students, talking about the academy to art teachers at area schools, putting up posters and passing out fliers. He had no idea how to run a non-profit organization, but he knew that he wanted the academy to be something that belonged to the community. It didn't take long to assemble his first class.
"I was looking for the kind of art student that was not a dabbler," Kirk says, "but someone who shows the right attitude and commitment to developing their art."
Recalling those beginning years, Kirk says, "I suppose ignorance was bliss. I had no idea how little I knew, and so there was nothing to stop me." The school grew quickly, demanding more of Kirk's time. He realized he had to focus on one goal in his life, and so he left The Montessori School to devote himself fully to the academy. As he learned more about the workings of a non-profit organization, he made a decision about relying only on tuition, private donations, and fundraising.
"It's an unusual way to run a non-profit," he admits, "but it's important to me that we answer to the community. In my earlier years of working with theatre companies that relied heavily on grants, I often saw that once grant money dried up, the company folded. But I wanted the academy to be a part of the Kalamazoo community, and for the people of this community to feel like it belongs to them, not one that relies on a grant to function."
Kirk's fundraising motto is: "Never ask a stranger for money." And so the academy opened its doors to young artists of the community, supported by the community, to give back to the community, inviting every stranger to become a friend. First befriended are the students. Offering courses that include painting, figure drawing, advanced drawing, 3-D design, photography, film, sculpture, theatrical design, illustration, Claymation, and art history, classes never have more than six students per instructor to ensure individualized attention. Interested young artists may fill out an application for admission by calling 269.345.7630, or online at www.smwaa.org . Based on the applications, students are invited to an interview and are requested to bring a portfolio of 15 to 20 recent works. The selected new students may then begin the Foundation semester, which teaches drawing skills and technique, color and design theory. Once completed, students may then choose elective classes to pursue their particular interests. They are placed in classes not according to age, but by skill level.
To befriend the community, Kirk opens the doors of the academy regularly with solo exhibits—every student has their turn—and by participating in Art Hops, a monthly event during which area galleries and businesses open their doors to the public as they exhibit the artwork of area artisans. "Art Hops are a way to get in touch with the Kalamazoo community while giving our young artists their first opportunity to exhibit their work."
Kirk does not feel that SWMVAA competes with public schools with the art education he provides, but that he complements the art classes in public schools. "We are not a replacement, but a supplement. Unfortunately, when schools have budget cuts, the arts are often the first to go, but we can help fill that gap. Art teachers in Kalamazoo know about the academy, and they are often the ones who send students our way."
Fifteen years into teaching young area artists, SWMVAA has now moved to 132 W. South Street, across from the Kalamazoo Public Library. The move, Kirk says, was the greatest challenge the academy had met in its existence, converting office space to school space while trying to keep a regular class schedule. But the rewards of watching SWMVAA grow, Kirk readily acknowledges, are great. "Every student I've been able to help is my reward," he says. "There is nothing like helping a new, young artist develop their own unique style and the confidence to express it. I tell my students the myth of the starving artist dies here. You can find ways to live your dream."
Kirk Lowis, standing in the gallery space of the Southwest Michigan Visual Arts Academy, the walls hung with bright and provocative artwork by his young pupils, is proof of that. How many tongs? He smiles and raises four fingers.
SIDEBAR - Jill Kreling, Young Artist
Jill knew she had "arrived" as an artist when her artwork was censored by her high school principal. "I take every day objects and I try to see them in new and different ways," she says about her art. This particular painting shows a baby doll hanging upside down by a wire tied around its ankle. Aptly, the painting is entitled, "Hanging." Jill's art teacher at her high school was impressed with the painting, and he asked if she would like to exhibit it along with the work of other students.
Shortly after the painting was exhibited, Jill was called down to her principal's office. The painting, her principal told her, would have to come down. The image of the hanging doll was too provocative, it seemed.
"I suppose it makes a person think about child abuse and neglect," Jill muses. "Although I'm not sure why that would be a subject to avoid thinking about."
Jill had been a student at SWMVAA since she had been 10 years old. When she shared her experience with her mentor, Kirk Lowis, at the academy, he was inspired to develop a class for his young art students to learn about issues of censorship, freedom of expression, and how First Amendment rights applies to the arts. The Board of Trustees at SWMVAA drafted a letter in response to the censorship and sent it to Jill's school and the school's board. Even so, the painting was taken down and no acknowledgement was received for the letter.
"I've always felt supported here," Jill speaks of the academy, her smile evidence of her fondness for both the school and its director. Lasting friendships? She lightly jabs a pencil into her mentor's shoulder. Former teachers have become today's colleagues and friends.
Encouraged by her mentor, Jill included "Hanging" in her portfolio when she graduated from high school and applied to art schools. She applied to Cleveland Institute of Art, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus College of Art & Design, and Minneapolis College of Art & Design. She was accepted to all.
"Hanging" was shown in the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts where it received honorable mention in a juried show. Jill is today a student at Cleveland Institute of Art, where she received a scholarship based, in part, on her portfolio.
The controversial painting now hangs in Jill's bedroom, where it reminds her daily to take risks for her art and always strive to see what others perhaps do not.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SMVAA, see http://www.smvaa.org/