Steamboat Springs Malory Holmes had a simple assignment: make the ugliest painting she possibly could.
A week later, the Yampa Valley School’s art teacher Rachel Hirning held it up for the class to see.
It was 16 layers thick with acrylic paint, a murky green color with streaks of bright yellow and red peeking through. With plaster, Holmes had engineered two textured protrusions, and she had punched holes through the canvas.
The pride was evident in her grin, which matched the one on Hirning’s face.
“What is art like when you don’t have to worry about the outcome?” Hirning asked the class. “You get to be playful and experiment and practice nonjudgement.”
“It was better,” Holmes agreed.
As she and her four classmates tackled a new project — painting individual squares into a pattern that will fit together on a large grid — Hirning hoped the group would approach the project in that same manner in which Holmes freely created her “ugly” piece.
“You’re going to stumble when you first approach your squares,” Hirning said. “Eventually, you’re going to find your groove; you’re going to find what strokes fit your mood and personality.”
The Yampa Valley School, the alternative high school for Steamboat Springs students, didn’t have an art program until three years ago. It was then that Susan de Wardt initiated a semester-long elective with the support of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council.
In its second year, the Craig-Scheckman Family Foundation funded the program, and the students and teachers made it clear they wanted it back.
This is the first school year that Hirning, a counselor and art therapist, will be visiting the Yampa Valley School once per week all year. Molly Lotz, YVS counselor, leads the other two classes each week.
“We’re learning to make this a priority,” Lotz said about the art program. “It’s for them to have art as an outlet and to cultivate their artistic skills. And it’s not just art. I know there’s great needs that can be addressed through art.”
Lotz said art is the only class to which the students arrive early and stay late.
On Wednesday, it was student Joe Hilterbrand who wouldn’t leave his seat until 10 minutes after class was over.
“I’m an artsy kind of kid,” he said as he bent over his painted square with an intense focus. “We can express our feelings; you put everything you can into your work.”
All five students in the program said art class is a stress reliever.
“I like that we can let go and relax and be ourselves and just get out of our heads for a bit,” said AJ Johnson.
And it stays with them even when they leave the classroom.
“When I go out of school and I’m hanging out, I talk about art class and what I made,” student Carlos Miranda said.
Clark Davidson, executive director of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council and a donor for the program, said it costs about $3,000 each year to administrate the program.
“Bringing art to school-age kids at any level is important in any community,” he said. “It helps their learning. It helps drive creativity. It helps them form ideas that are going to make everything in our community better.”
For Hirning, there’s nothing like seeing what creative expression can do for the alternative school students.
“I hope I’ve given the students a chance to fully be who they are in that moment,” Hirning said as she cleaned up brushes and paint Wednesday afternoon. “To know they’re OK, whatever they put on that paper is OK.
“When I see a light in their eyes based on their art, I know we’ve done good work.”
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com