“The arts are not a frill. The arts are a response to our individuality and our nature, and help to shape our identity. What is there that can transcend deep difference and stubborn divisions? The arts. They have a wonderful universality. Art has the potential to unify. It can speak in many languages without a translator. The arts do not discriminate. The arts can lift us up.” –Former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan
Boyes Hot Springs is a cultural intersection with busy Highway 12 running right through it. Just outside the upscale wine- and tourist-oriented town of Sonoma, it is much smaller with much larger contrasts: a large luxury resort hotel is the biggest business, surrounded by many small shops, markets and Mexican food street vendors. Nearby, premium wineries and multi-million dollar homes and ranches border the town’s small cottages and mobile home parks.
Beyond the physical disparities are the cultural. Many residents of “The Springs” (as locals call it) speak Spanish as their primary language. Many do not have employment that provides a sustainable living wage, requiring aid and subsidization. Many Latino families living there consist of grandparents and/or parents who are Spanish-only speakers while their children are bilingual or primarily English speakers after being born and raised here. Conversely, many of The Springs’ non-Latino residents do not speak Spanish. Opportunities for connection through a mutually spoken language – the arts – most certainly exist in this place of obvious diversity.
There sits, right in the middle of town, a neat, innocuous cottage, set perpendicular to the main road. The sign in front reads: “ArtEscape.” Not a trendy tourist B&B or expensive art gallery, ArtEscape is a neat, colorful, light-filled house of joyous creativity, with a mission to provide a vibrant, stimulating place where the diverse local population can gather to discover and explore their creative potential. Through quality art experiences created by professional artists, ArtEscape offers anyone in their community affordable opportunities to cultivate a greater multi-cultural awareness and build stronger personal and neighborhood connections while creating art and crafts in their many forms.
In 2015-2016, ArtEscape received a $2,500 Small Grant for the Arts from Community Foundation Sonoma County to conduct art workshops in Spanish. The classes are for parents and their children and are taught on weekend days. The grant pays for a bilingual teacher for 16 hours of classes, made available free to participants. This project brings art-making to Latino families in their own community, without the barriers of language, cost or transportation.
ArtEscape was originally created by five dynamic, creative and committed women to provide a welcoming venue for art teachers and students; to nurture and expand the richness of fine arts and crafts in enhancing education and lives. Their goal is most certainly being met, just four years into the dynamic and growing venture. Kate Ortolano, one of the founders, expresses the importance and impact of even a small grant: “We are extremely grateful to have received this grant – our community benefited and it pushed us to make more connections, as we began inviting in this family population in a way that is non-threatening. We really had to network to bring people in. Just the fact that these classes are in Spanish made a huge difference to the participants and to our center.”
She continues with a broad smile, her passion evident, “This gave us a focus and also provided Yessenia, our young bilingual teacher, a successful and genuine experience of community building. The grant allowed her to develop who she is as well. She walked the neighborhoods and introduced herself and the program, inviting people to come. She also did research on all her projects – we were very impressed.”
“Now, the kids in the neighborhood know us as people. The kids pull their parents in for this class; for most other things it’s the parents bringing the kids. A little boy said to his father, ‘Please Dad, sit down.’ We gave Dad scissors and he really got into it,” she laughs. “Parents don’t just send the kids to these classes — the parents come too. The parents said they then did new things at home together. So, you see, it’s bridging and building a sense of family. It’s really important; they feel they belong and it strengthens their family, our community and our society.”
ArtEscape has many ways to give the gift of art. Their mobile art studio drives art teachers, supplies and activities to events and locations around the area. As they go and grow, says Ortolano, “We are mentoring students and artists as teachers. We hired college kids and realized they didn’t know how to teach. We showed them how to be firm but flexible and kind, and to create order out of chaos. I don’t know of any other place here that does what we do and we’re very excited about the potential. We want to bring in more people, as it is becoming a safe place and we can begin to build a generational place. Our current kids are helping, so this work will continue on.”