Welcome to the 7th installment of Boston Mamas Rock! – where we’re giving a voice to fabulous local mamas, whether they be entrepreneurs, avid volunteers, stay at home moms, moms who have closet talents, authors, media professionals, politicians, professors, etc. Read on for today’s interview with Karen Dillon, mother of two, arts advocate, and owner of the local art education studio ArtisTRY. Then go ahead and nominate yourself or a friend!
Karen Dillon, Owner, ArtisTRY
Christine: Tell us a little bit about your background Karen. Your life revolves around arts education but my understanding is that you used to work in corporate America. What line of work were you in prior to your current path, and what propelled you to make the leap?
Karen: Even though I majored in studio art while in college - in my 20’s - I was the classic starving artist who made a living working in the high tech industry. I worked for over 15 years at Bolt, Beranek and Newman in Cambridge, MA at a variety of clerical and other jobs, eventually becoming a tech writer (I still freelance as a technical writer). But even when I wasn’t making my living as an artist, I was still creating art and studying under other artists.
In 2002 two pivotal events happened in my life; I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in July and laid off from BBN in September. So, I spent the subsequent year in cancer treatment and doing some serious soul searching. In April, the art teacher at my children’s elementary school became very ill and was unable to teach for the final months of the school year. Knowing I was an artist (and perhaps desperate), the principal of the school called me and asked me to fill in for the art teacher. I needed to develop a curriculum for kids ranging in age from K to 5th grade and teach 4-6 classes a day. What I discovered as a substitute art teacher was how exciting it is to teach children and watch their creative confidence and abilities develop. I also became acutely aware of the challenges public school art teachers face with large class sizes, poor quality materials, and infrequent class time. I became determined to establish a studio to offer children high level art education in a safe and nurturing environment, using artist quality tools, and in a space with like-minded children. The concept for ArtisTRY was born.
Christine: You launched your home based art studio, ArtisTRY, only two years ago and the business appears to be thriving. How do you get the word out about yourself? For the mamapreneurs out there, what have been the most effective means of promoting your services?
Karen: I feel blessed that my studio ArtisTRY is thriving and has substantial enrollment and now even a waitlist. But, I have a limited capacity as far as the number of students I can accept per session (8 students per class, 4 classes for every eight week session) so I do not advertise too aggressively. Currently, most of my new students come via word of mouth. When I started out two years ago I advertised with flyers in local parks and art stores, postings on local email lists, and created a website. Arlington has a town day in September and I used that opportunity to network, hand out brochures, and talk about my new studio. A year ago, when I realized my students were mainly from Arlington and I wanted to branch out, I donated sets of lessons to the silent auctions and fundraising efforts of organizations, synagogues, and churches in neighboring towns. Eventually word of mouth traveled through those other towns as well and I gained some really nice new students.
Christine: Your work obviously is out of home. Do you have dedicated studio space or does your living space feel overrun with art supplies? How do you transition out of thinking about your business off the clock?
Karen: Part of the reason this situation works so well is because I have a large naturally lit studio in the basement level of my home so I have a dedicated separate space for my business, including a separate entrance. Sure, my home is overrun with art supplies; I am an artist after all and my favorite place to paint is at my kitchen table. But when I want to escape the business I simply walk up a flight of stairs. Similarly, I can escape the rigors of home by escaping to my studio. In all honesty, I never feel the need to escape the elements of my business life. I love everything about teaching, working with kids, mentoring, and being surrounded by art. For me, it’s bliss.
Christine: Your nominator said very eloquently that you try to “teach children a healthy connection to nature and a respect for the natural world” – how does that concept translate to your teaching?
Karen: In my opinion the most grounded people are those who have a spiritual connection to the natural world. I think as adults it is imperative for us to teach our children to connect with nature and find solace in the outdoors; much as the artist finds solace in art. Think about the greatest of artists - they must be keen observers of whatever their chosen subject is. I think art without intent is never evocative. What I like to do is take my summer students out field sketching and teach them to slow down and observe the natural world. We use all our senses. We listen, touch, smell, and just sit. We learn to be comfortable in the quiet of nature. I instruct them on how to keep a visual diary in the form of a sketchbook. Last spring I taught 3 separate classes of 8 kids over a period of eight weeks about the artist and naturalist Chiura Obata. He was a Japanese American who survived an internment camp in the 1940’s by creating an arts school in the camp and training thousands of Japanese in the arts. I encourage anyone who doesn’t know about him to learn more. He’s an inspiration on so many levels. I used his life story as a springboard to introduce the kids to becoming naturalists, art journalists, and to understand that as creative individuals the creative process is a key element to their lifelong well-being.
Christine: You serve on the board of directors for the Arlington Center for the Arts as well as the Arlington Cultural Council; what’s your read on the public schools these days as far as preservation of arts?
Karen: Oh please, don’t get me started talking about the importance of art in education…I could go on forever. Arts education is not about painting pretty pictures and mastering a creative skill. Arts education helps improve critical thinking and problem solving skills. There is a science and mastery in everything in art from color mixing to rendering. And perhaps most importantly there are quite a few children whose major area of intellectual strength is in their creativity. These are the children who grow up to be scientists and inventors who help all of humanity. Children who lean towards creativity need to utilize their skills in school. That’s where their happiness and confidence lies. We all want to focus on areas that interest us, and where we have ability, right? Ivy League admission departments are not placing as much consideration on standardized test results and are relying more on the personal interview and creative endeavors of applicants. They know that real leaders are those who think out of the box.
Even though statistics prove that art education benefits the child in so many ways, funding for art and music and other creative instruction is continually one of the first program cuts from public school programs. The US government cut 4.3 billion from education funding, including 35 million from Arts in Education. As Dan Hunter, executive director of the Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences & Humanities (MAASH) points out, “According to a coalition of researchers, 81 percent of corporate leaders in America say that creativity is an essential skill for the 21st-century workforce. In addition to creativity, these business leaders look for such skills as collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, and oral communication.” I volunteer my time with the Arlington Cultural Council so I can be assured an eclectic array of arts and cultural programming is coming into my community and that the underserved population is able to experience the arts. My time on the board of Directors of Arlington Center for the Arts was to ensure that a valuable resource like that stay firmly rooted in the community as well. I tend to be pretty vocal on the topic of arts advocacy as you can see from my long-winded answer.
Christine: Tell us a bit about your two children. How old are they and where were you work-wise when they arrived? How did you handle maternity leave time and return to work? Was your work environment supportive of your role as a new mom?
Karen: I have been blessed with two wonderfully creative and compassionate children. My daughter is almost 13 and my son is 10. They are very involved in my studio and class time. I test out lesson plans and activities with them; they work as assistants in my studio, and give me great feedback regarding what works well and what does not. My daughter is a part of my teen open studio class so she is my student too. ArtisTRY is very much a family run business. My son is a remarkable musician and artist. When his creative abilities were not being fostered in public school last year I felt I needed to save his academic life and took him out of public school and enrolled him in the Lexington Montessori School and he is now thriving. My children are often home when I am teaching and respectful of my time in the downstairs studio but know I am only a floor away if needed. They know I am an advocate for the arts and we often talk about feelings and experiences in terms of color and art. We speak the same language.
Christine: How have you juggled motherhood with your work? What do you think has been the most challenging aspect about being an independent mamapreneur?
Karen: Being a manapreneur is wonderful because it allows me time to manage motherhood, work, and my ideals. My life is pretty stress free. I am very lucky. I don’t have to deal with a horrible commute, the family supper can be cooking upstairs while I am down stairs teaching and my children always can find me. However, teaching art in small class sizes is not a particularly lucrative thing to do - it’s a labor of love. The most challenging thing for me is staying focused on my philosophy and remembering that although I could be making more money doing something else I wouldn’t be modeling happiness, advocacy, and the importance for making a difference to my children. I feel very satisfied knowing I am making a difference in my student’s lives. I feel comforted knowing that my students are learning that creativity is an integral part of who they are and is something they can tap into for the rest of their lives. I have created a safe artistic nest for my students and that is very rewarding. My family does well with a little less money and more quality time together.
Christine: We recently featured The Children’s Room and I think it’s wonderful that you bring art therapy to them. My husband and I actually are both trained psychologists, and given that our daughter’s favorite activity is art, we find that we are able to help her work through crabby/difficult episodes with impromptu art therapy. Do you find that this sort of thing occurs in your classes; meaning, do you find that children – intentionally or not – translate their emotions in their creations, or seek your help to do so?
Karen: I think it’s wonderful that you and your husband help your daughter work through trying times with art. I love hearing stories like that. When my children were little we got out our anger by punching clay or scribbling on paper. When they had bad dreams we drew the monsters on paper and cut them up. Amazingly the monsters often vanished after that. They see me paint away my own sadness and frustrations. I am not an art therapist, just an artist who understand how important art can be to heal the human spirit. I have been fortunate to witness so much powerful, beautiful growth and expression through the art the children make at The Children’s Room. Many of the children there have experienced trauma and/or great sadness. They do not have the vocabulary or ability to express them selves with words. So they express themselves in play and also with art and physical exertion.
Two years ago I spearheaded an effort to get the children’s art from The Children’s Room out to the public. I coordinated “Art from the Heart,” a traveling art show of the select works completed by children in the program, including their powerful artist’s statements about their work. “Art from the Heart” traveled to galleries, libraries, and local corporations and was presented for two weeks at the Boston State House. As an offshoot from the exhibit we produced a box of 10 note cards featuring the children’s work, which TCR sells. The children were pleased knowing their messages about loss, and tributes to loved ones were being seen by so many. The children who participated learned how well art is able to share messages and thoughts.
In my studio I have quite a few students that have learning challenges or are experiencing difficulties at home. I encourage them to use their art as a safe place to express their feelings and explore their thoughts. I point out connections between art, color, and emotions. I believe each person has an area in their life where they can get lost and find comfort. For some it’s sports, others it’s music or books or writing or art. They key thing is to realize what works for you as an individual and to consider that a tool in your toolbox for life. When the going gets tough you can reach for whatever works for you and soothe yourself. I hope to empower kids to develop coping mechanisms that will steer them clear of other things people abuse for the sake of comfort, like money, food, alcohol, and drugs. I have had quite a few parents of my students comment on how much better emotionally their children seem once they have a time and place to be creative and expressive. My philosophy is this: “I believe in the power of art to heal, teach, empower, and encourage.”
Christine: We’ve talked all serious up to now. Tell us about the favorite things you do to unwind, or any hidden/unusual talents you may have.
Karen: With me what you see is what you get and I am afraid I don’t have any really interesting secret talents. I walk almost every day for an hour with my little dog. My walks are meditative and are processing time for me, and a time to connect with my own neighborhood. Quite often I experience creative inspirations when I walk. My favorite things to do are to read, write, paint (of course), and play Scrabble. I love the ocean and combing the shoreline for sea glass and other treasures. I also love music and everything visual - movies, art museums, even people watching. I believe that in life we continually develop new abilities so I just might have some hidden talent like playing a mean bass guitar that I just haven’t discovered yet. We’ll see if I join a rock band in my 50’s.
Christine: And finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a Boston mama?
Karen: No question, my favorite thing in life is being a mama. In my opinion there is no greater gift. Being a mother has enlightened and empowered me. I feel so much maternal pride and joy for not only my children but my students as well. Enjoying life with my kids in an exciting place like Boston is just the icing on the cake.
Know a fabulous local mama? Nominate yourself or someone else to be featured!