Helen Littlejohn had never dabbled in art until one day in the early 1990s, when her son brought home a mask-making project from his middle school.
"He opened me up to something in the universe that has no limits," says the public-relations professional. "I thought I would try it. And fell in love."
Littlejohn, a 1972 graduate of Manual High School who'd pursued more "steadfast" subjects, was intrigued by this creative universe. "Looking at the expanse of a blank canvas, this magic thing starts happening," she says. "Something speaks and says, 'Put me here. I'm red. I'm this shape. I'm this feeling.'"
Although Littlejohn does PR work for the regional office of the U.S. Department of Education, she now also thinks of herself as an artist, albeit one who is entirely self-taught. Two of her works are among the more than fifty pieces by Denver Public Schools teachers, staffers and alums now on display at the Art Institute of Colorado.
"I know this is not politically correct, but I paint colored people. Not just whether someone's skin is black, red or white, but the colors within us," she says of "Pinkie," a painting of a colorful little girl. Littlejohn's "Fishy" piece was influenced by flamboyant Haitian art.
Contributors include not just teachers, but secretaries and administrators as well. Even the campus security supervisor has several nature photographs hanging. "It celebrates the artist in us all," says Susan Pinkney-Todd, a DPS visual arts specialist who is coordinating the event.
While some of the pieces are for sale, that's not the primary purpose of the show, now in its fifth year. More important, it gives students and other members of the community a chance to see works by DPS teachers and staff.
For Littlejohn, who claims a mixed background that includes African-American, Native American, English and Mexican ancestors, the exhibit is an opportunity to show the outlet for her passion.
"This," she says, "is my heart and soul.