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Artist Jon Zahourek's anatomy lessons find a home in south Denver

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Artist Jon Zahourek teaches anatomy from the inside out, creating model skeletons from clay. And with the Studios at Overland Crossing, just off Santa Fe and Evans, he's also built a community center from the inside out, taking a former pottery factory and turning it into a space for art classes, events and his own studio.

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Born in Oklahoma, Zahourek dropped out of college to become a painter in Denver in the 1960s and '70s. When he moved to New York in the late '70s and began teaching a painting class, he realized that many of his students struggled with painting the human form because they didn't understand human anatomy. After that, he not only learned anatomy himself, but developed a system for teaching the subject to artists, scientists and other students that is now in place in 6,000 classrooms around the country.

When Zahourek started his anatomy project, he stopped painting -- and he has yet to return. But he came back to Denver, where he found a home for his project.

"This is more important than more of my artwork," Zahourek says. "And the best thing you can hope for as an artist is to have a piece of timeless art, in a museum or on people's walls. This is the creative act; I'm giving the creative act to people. They build, they create; they create meaning with their hands."

In 2010, Zahourek and his wife bought the Denver Pottery Company building in south Denver. He initially intended to use the space to get back into painting, but instead wound up expanding the anatomy program and creating a community center. "I came down here because I knew the development in Denver had to move south," Zahourek says. "Colfax was unlikely. West Colfax is cooked. Out north is cooked. And the light rail is going to bring kids from disadvantaged populations."

The building was built in the late 1800s as the Shane Furnace and Metal Appliance Company warehouse, and the ownership cycled through various manufacturing companies until the 1970s, when the Denver Pottery Company moved in. When Zahourek and his wife bought the place and began renovations, the floor was covered with bits of pottery. "We would walk around and talk and pick up tile chips everywhere we went," Valeria Zahourek remembers. Valeria is Jon's niece and the director of development for the Studios at Overland Crossing, which is the new name for the old building.

Today the building is split into three sections, separated by garage doors: the clay center that's filled with model skeletons, where Zahourek holds classes; the center studio, which is used to host weddings, bar mitzvahs and fundraisers; and Zahourek's personal studio, where he creates new models. There is also a second level with offices, including Zahourek's library of books and bones and other memorabilia from the last thirty years, including a clay model he created in the '80s that a friend found in storage recently, almost fully intact. Zahourek sees it as a testament to how "green" the product is.

"People say, 'How often do you have to replace the clay?' Well, never," he notes. "You don't. It's non-consumable; it's a one-time purchase."

Erica Schmitt, the center's executive secretary, says the economical aspect of clay is important to making the program accessible. "We can offer it to as many students as want to come through, and it's so cool not to have that limitation," Schmitt says.

The staff's goal is to be able to offer free classes and events by partnering with non-profit organizations, including the Colorado Ballet and Ricks Center for the Gifted at the University of Denver; it also rents out the studios for private events like weddings that help cover the costs of classes for other kids.

The center also hosts musical events, including performances by the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Sphere Ensemble, a thirteen-piece string orchestra that includes musicians from all over Colorado, which event manager Kimberly Hersel says acts as Overland Crossing's unofficial house band.

"We never have trouble coming up with ideas," Valeria Zahourek says. "It's pinning down an idea and executing it."

While the center continues to expand its creative reach, Zahourek says he wants to focus on using his clay system for anatomy education for young students. He's had success with classes for first- and second-graders, and gotten feedback from parents whose children can actively remember and understand the things they learned when they were just five and six.

"The major benefit is that they get the confidence that they can do anything," Zahourek says. "That they succeed and that they are good. That's why I've been trying to drive it into lower grades."

But Zahourek thinks his system is important for all people, regardless of age and career path. "The reason is being alive, and self discovery and knowing who you are," he says.

Anatomy in Clay kits -- which are portable versions of Zahourek's lessons, complete with bare model skeletons and finished ones for teaching, as well as clay and tools -- are available at several Front Range libraries. Find the schedule of classes at the Studios at Overland Crossing on the Formative Haptics Denver website.

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