The Dr. Robert Smith House on North Main Street in Mount Airy once served as headquarters for the local Red Cross, but it now houses another important and life-giving organization.
The Blue House Teaching Studio, which provides classes for adults with disabilities, partnered with Surry Community College last year. This partnership took place because of a new state curriculum offering expanded programs for adult basic education, which provided more structure and organization to the already established programs. The studio is now an off-campus classroom and SCC provides pay for the instructors who began as volunteers.
After taking a break in January, the studio will reopen on Feb. 5 at 9 a.m., with sign-ups, registration and an orientation for the students.
The organization serves more than 90 students every week, up from six students when it began in 2005. It is a place where they can find a way to express themselves through art, music and drama.
Despite the vicious wind blowing outside on Wednesday morning, the inside of the studio was filled with a sense of calm and a warm and artistic spirit.
Donna Jackson, executive director, was filled with spirit as she described the individuals who are served by the classes. “The students are begging to come back after every class. They have such a story to tell, if only people would listen. We give them that outlet to express themselves. We help them find success and express their voices through art. Most of the students are visual learners — they see something in our classes and are then able to put it in perspective in their lives.”
Colorful artwork created by the students adorned the walls of the Blue House. The works of art, which include a variety of artistic mediums as well as jewelry, are available to purchase for very reasonable prices, with half the money going directly to the artists. The public is welcome to stop by during business hours and purchase the artwork and products produced by the students.
Jackson described some of the positive experiences that take place in the classes on a daily basis. “One example is our shadow painting. We set up a light and projected the students’ shadows onto paper. The students traced their shadows and painted them. Many painted their aura — it was as if they were painting their spirit. It was amazing. We also have music and simple skits. Our instructors may read a story and have the students act it out.
“The students don’t just sit down and color with crayons. If we do anything with crayons, we are melting them down and using them to create stained glass art,” said Jackson as she gestured to colorful panels mounted in the window of the office, created by the students. “I ruined a cheese grater to get those crayon shavings, but it was really worth it.”
Classes may be based around a certain artist, musician, or an artistic medium such as pointillism, which is a painting technique using small dots of color to create larger images. The instructors incorporate relaxation exercises into many of the classes, as well as lessons on manners, public etiquette, social skills and morals. Students also are able to learn numbers and the alphabet through art.
The Blue House Teaching Studio was approached about the partnership by Surry Community College in 2012. Many of the students served through the Adult Basic Education classes were already part of the Blue House Teaching Studio, so it was a perfect pairing.
Virginia Stammetti, director of College and Career Readiness for SCC, said she always wanted to partner with the organization, but the guidelines for the program did not allow for a partnership until changes were made to the North Carolina curriculum in 2012, which allowed for the partnership to take place.
“This is a great partnership. By working with the studio, we are incorporating art into the curriculum. The instructors were already volunteering, and we are pleased we can now offer them pay. Plus, the students are enrolled as college students, which is a plus,” said Stammetti.
The studio moved to the Dr. Robert Smith House, which is operated by the Gilmer-Smith Foundation, in April of last year from the previous Gallery Group location on West Pine Street. “We went back to the real reason we started,” said Jackson.
The Blue House Teaching Studio is a non-profit organization that exists entirely because of donations from individuals, businesses and community organizations. Due to the economic downturn, donations and grants also have decreased and a call was put forth to the community to support this worthy cause.
According to Jackson, monthly expenses can be costly and are paid for by donations. The studio needs a minimum of $25,000 per year just to survive and continue to serve the students who benefit from the classes.
“We are very thankful to our donors, as well as Surry Community College, United Fund of Surry, our Board of Directors, and a special thanks to the Gilmer-Smith Foundation for this lovely facility.”
A fundraising campaign is under way, as well as an effort to receive quality art supplies such as acrylics, watercolors, decoupage supplies, brushes, canvases and more. For a complete list of needed items, contact the studio.
Volunteers are always welcomed. Needs include helping with classes, cleaning, clerical work, filing, organizing and sorting materials, and web design.
“We just have to stay alive and keep the funding coming. We love being here at the Dr. Robert Smith House and enjoy the grounds. We have breathed life into this old house. It is now a home for many.”
For more information, visit the Blue House Teaching Studio website at www.bluehousegroup.org, check out the page on Facebook, or call 719-0058. The Blue House Art and Teaching Studio is located at 615 N. Main St. in Mount Airy and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesday.
Reach Jessica Johnson at email@example.com or 719-1933.