In 7-year-old Hazen Kreis is a blossoming sense of curiosity; a world of energy beaming out through his wide, bespectacled eyes.
Susanmarie Oddo, a local artist and Steamboat Springs School District art teacher of 10 years, saw Hazen as a brightly colored dragonfly, his wings a flutter, and to his — and his mother’s — delight, she painted him that way.
At an art opening in October for Oddo’s Kidspiration paintings, Hazen’s mother, Erin Kreis, said her son proudly was posing next to his likeness when newcomers walked through the door.
“Dragonflies flitter around and never sit down, and that’s exactly how he is,” Strawberry Park Elementary School art teacher Erin Kreis says. “It suits him perfect.”
Hazen is one of about 100 children Oddo has reinterpreted as bug-eyed animals and fantastical insects on canvas for her Kidspiration art series. The works are based on careful observations she makes of her students and her friends’ children, like Hazen.
“What I see is who they are inside,” Oddo says. “It’s a relationship; I’m painting their essence.”
Capturing that essence has resulted in some surprising coincidences: Oddo once painted a little girl as a lovable little bird, and the mother later told her that the color scheme Oddo chose was the same pattern as the girl’s bed sheets.
Oddo completed another painting of a young boy as a wide-eyed koala before she learned his father came from Down Under.
“There’s an intuitive piece to it,” Oddo says. “It’s things like curiosity, silliness, posture, the patterns they wear in their clothes — the list goes on. It’s harder than my formal paintings, but I don’t realize it because I’m having so much fun.”
Oddo had an innate interest in the arts and education even as a young girl.
“At 12 years old, I was addicted,” she says. “I told my folks I was going to be a photographer, and I set up a makeshift school in my backyard.”
There, she taught photography and art classes to the neighborhood children, enlightening them on the darkroom process and selling portraits for 25 cents. But it wasn’t until her 20s that she circled back to teaching after studying fashion photography and working as a photojournalist.
One of her professors once told her, “You don’t teach art; you teach students,” and it’s an adage in which her own philosophy has its roots.
“It means to inspire the kids, to inspire creativity,” she says. “What I didn’t predict is watching these kids grow a sense of self-esteem. I don’t teach art; I teach the students to discover it for themselves.”
The first show of Kidspiration pieces was hung in 2007 at Comb Goddess. Oddo says her students helped her come up with the idea.
“I was hesitant to show this work because it was so different than anything I’d ever done,” she says. “And it was so hard. The simpler images are, the harder they get. Even I feel insecure sometimes.”
That first show sold out, and since, she’s held four more art openings. Her work also has found its way into homes as far away as Italy and Mexico. Even when painting a child she hasn’t met, she requests several pictures and does extensive interviews with her clients to help her visualize an encapsulating picture.
Here at home, Oddo’s paintings capture in one whimsical and innocent moment a piece of a young person’s life that forever will live on through art and their inner child.
“It’s watching them and their families grow,” Oddo says. “Steamboat is my extended family.” ■