Visual Arts

Start the Art benefit jump-starts a plan to push a free arts education for kids

Artists and arts lovers alike turned out for Friday night's Start the Art benefit concert -- to talk, listen to performances by local musicians Terry Sandoval of the Hunger Artist, ScaTTer GaTHer and headliner Joshua Novak, and promote the cause of arts education for kids, with the goal of raising $5,000.

And incidentally, also to celebrate the birthday of Chris Fabian, one half of the event's organizing power duo.

"It's my birthday today, by the way," Fabian said with a smile, in the middle of a speech about Denver Art Society and its awesome plans for the Treehouse Youth Art School. Half an hour after the doors opened at 734 Santa Fe Drive, people were just starting to trickle in; some perused the art, while others sipped drinks, noshed and listened to solo guitarist Terry Sandoval set the stage for the night. Sarah Murray, the second half of the organizing team, personally welcomed each guest, handing out wrist bands.

By any measure, Fabian should have been having a beer, enjoying the event he helped bring about and celebrating his birthday. Instead, he wanted to talk about what Denver Art Society is doing to help kids, and how he and Murray got involved.

"We're just locals. We heard about what they're doing, and it matches what my work is trying to do," he said, launching into a spiel about the company he works for, the Center for Priority Based Budgeting, that helps entities decide what to keep, what to cut and what to do about the things they have to cut, "nice-to-haves" like arts education. "When these government organizations really do get to the point when they need to make some cuts, we work with them to take the next step and say, 'For the programs that we can't afford, are there nonprofits who can help them out and provide the services?'" Fabian explained.

"That's how we met Sean. Here's a nonprofit that says, 'We realize that the cuts are being made here, and we're going to provide that education."

Sean is Sean McGowan, executive director of Denver Art Society and the face of the Treehouse Youth Art School. As the place filled up Friday, it became hard to catch a moment with him. When we finally got to ask how the Treehouse concept came about, his answer was simple: "It's been in the works for a couple of years -- just people, discontent with the state of arts education."

Denver Art Society's headquarters at 734 Santa Fe is an accommodating space for local artists, and is sustained through multiple co-ops that pay the expenses and cover the group's day-to-day operations. In the basement is the Underground, a gallery space. Upstairs is the Canopy, a spot for events and also for resident artists to live and work. And in between, on the ground floor, is the Treehouse Youth Art School, which has gone through countless hours of renovation to turn it into an inviting space that will provide a free arts education for kids.

With the support gained at Friday's concert, Denver Art Society hopes to finally jump-start a plan that has been in the works for years.

Denver Art Society's members were in top form at this event, each one there to represent himself and the group equally. Adrienne Norris's works are evocative portraitures of human action and interaction, and she is deft with the media she uses, her pen-and-ink precise, her white acrylic wash perfectly executed in layers to demonstrate light and shadow. Heidi West paints in oil, memory and observation, and her brushstrokes have the impatience that comes with trying to capture something fast disappearing. Forrest Morrison's studies of hands -- crushing a butterfly, or with a tree in lieu of a finger -- are striking, vivid and fraught with symbolism. Cori Ducombs' work is busy and psychedelic.

Some of these artists will be teaching classes for Treehouse in return for exposure. Some have been showing and selling their work in the Art District on Santa Fe for months or years; some, like Morrison, even live here. Many independent artists have found a home at Denver Art Society, and with the launch of the Treehouse, kids will receive the same welcome.

By the time Novak was ready to take the stage, the venue had experienced an energizing, chaotic coming-together. Between ticket sales and a silent auction of donated prizes, Start the Art raised a substantial amount.

But the event's real accomplishment was strengthening the fraternity of artists and supporters who not only want to nourish creative growth, but believe the arts are essential to communities. They are countering a culture that says art is a luxury, and making the crucial statement -- just by being at Start the Art -- that every person has the right to be creative. Bridging the gap between art as luxury and art as a human right won't be easy, but last week Fabian, Murray and Denver Art Society members proved that the idea isn't going away -- even if the money does.

To find out how to volunteer, teach, show your work or donate to Denver Art Society, visit the organization's website.

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Shaughnessy Speirs

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