Art With Heart

By Karen Wilson

What develops creativity, imagination, problem solving skills, self-confidence, leadership, self-discipline, mental agility, poise, and empathy – all at the same time? THE ARTS.

Chattanooga is home to many extraordinary nonprofits committed to reaching all segments of society through the arts. These organizations infuse the lives of young people daily with positive, empowering activities – and thanks to them, music, visual art, theater, and dance are all alive and well throughout our city.

SPLASH Youth Arts Workshop est. 2014

What it is: A free, year-round arts workshop for youth located in Chattanooga’s Westside.

SPLASH Executive Director Charlie Newton knows firsthand the impact art can have on a life. “I grew up in College Hill Courts and loved drawing since I was five years old. It was art that lifted me out of my environment.” His parents found every free class available, but eventually he was priced out of additional training. It was then that he pushed himself to earn a bachelor’s degree in art from UTC, followed by a Master of Fine Arts from Norfolk University. Today he’s an accomplished professional artist with commissions throughout the Southeast.

In 2012 he formed SPLASH Youth Arts Workshop in order to meet the need for art instruction in his own neighborhood. The program now serves youth ages 6 to 17, offering free art classes five to six days a week in the old James A. Henry school building. “I originally formed SPLASH to train young people who wanted a career as an artist, but I quickly realized the need was much bigger than art lessons,” he says. “We provide mentoring, caring, and guidance to about 80 kids during the school year and close to 180 in the summer. We’re a safe place with structure, creativity, snacks, and positive adult guidance.”

Newton also makes it a point to teach his students about entrepreneurship. Art created by the students is sold with half of the profit going to the young artists and their families, and half back into SPLASH. “These young people learn that what they do not only has creative value, but monetary value.”

Newton works to involve the entire community. He’s formed partnerships with Renaissance Presbyterian Church and the Westside Community Center, and can even be found knocking on doors, introducing himself to parents. His goal? To help members of our community understand that the arts can change lives. “We need the adults in the city to get in the game. Organizations like ours are on the ground level. We have the power to solve some of the problems we see on TV with crime and gang violence. Art teaches young people that they have value and self-worth. Investing in these young lives will change our community.”


Photos by Lanewood Studio

Dance Alive est. 1997

What it is: A two-week summer dance experience for children ages 8 to 12 from the Chattanooga area.

Dance Alive has opened doors for thousands of aspiring dancers in its 19-year history. The brain child of Ballet Tennessee founders Barry and Anna VanCura, the annual two-week summer intensive strives to reach students who lack access and exposure to formal dance lessons.

From its inception Dance Alive has acted in partnership with the city’s Department of Youth and Family Development. Students ages 8 to 12 audition at one of four city recreation centers and are selected based on their interest, physical energy, and motivation. Those selected are awarded a full scholarship, and the city provides busses to transport them daily to the Ballet Tennessee’s studios at the Patten Recreation Center.

For two hours each day, young dancers are trained in classical ballet, modern dance, and creative movement – forms of dance in which people of color continue to be underrepresented. A key goal is to expose nonwhite students to people in the ballet world who look like them (i.e., people like rising star Misty Copeland) through the study of dance history and interaction with a diverse group of instructors. “We want children to know they can study any art form that interests them,” says VanCura. “It’s so rewarding to see these kids embrace new ideas and concepts, and then contribute their own creative ideas as we put movement together.” 

Volunteers from the recreation center act as chaperones, guiding each student through their daily classes. At the conclusion, participants give a public performance on stage at UTC’s Fine Arts Center, and many are offered the chance to become TIP (Talent Identification Program) scholars year-round at Ballet Tennessee, free of charge. 

Ballet Tennessee’s year-long TIP scholar program has impacted hundreds of students who have benefited from the study of dance. “We see children learning self-discipline, self-confidence, and respect,” says VanCura. “Many have transferred those skills out into the work force.” Additionally, many graduates have gone on to professional careers. Professional ballet dancer Fredrick Davis, subject of last year’s WTCI documentary “From the Streets to Stage,” found his beginning at a Dance Alive audition in 1998. He regularly returns to Ballet Tennessee as a guest teacher.

What keeps the program alive (no pun intended) after so many years? For Anna VanCura, it’s conversations with former students who have channeled their Dance Alive or TIP experience into furthering their dreams. “Every time a former student shares how important Dance Alive was for them, I’m a believer all over again,” she says.

Mark Making est. 2009

What it is: A local nonprofit that empowers underserved individuals and populations through professionally led public art projects.

Frances McDonald is indeed making a mark in Chattanooga—both literally and figuratively. As the founder of nonprofit Mark Making, she’s the driving force behind an ongoing community art project. Her vision of empowering people through the arts can be seen throughout the city. Murals and other public art projects created by Mark Making participants can be found on Martin Luther King Blvd., Main St., Glass St., Riverfront Parkway, the Hamilton County Jail, Bluff Furnace, and the Tennessee Riverpark, to name just a few.

Established in 2009 and located in the East Chattanooga Glass Street district, Mark Making has facilitated workshops with more than 2,000 individuals to create 39 public art projects in cooperation with more than 60 schools and nonprofits. Not afraid to venture into territory that may seem intimidating to others, McDonald and her core of professional volunteer artists have worked with underserved children, teens, the homeless, individuals struggling with drugs or mental illness, and inmates at the Hamilton County Jail. “I’m interested in giving a voice to those who typically don’t have one,” says McDonald.

The public art is created through free Mark Making art classes and partnerships with public and private schools, foundations, and non-profits serving target populations. The goal is to foster empathy and community spirit as each individual involved gets to know someone from a different walk of life. “I see participants develop pride in their accomplishments. They take ownership, and develop citizenship when they see their work become a permanent addition to the city,” says McDonald.

A new summer project, Magic Markers, is designed to mentor neighborhood teenagers in art making with an emphasis on the value of their work. Through community improvement projects, McDonald pays participants for their skills in punctuality, politeness, teamwork, project completion—all skills that promote work readiness. In 2015, the Magic Markers created small murals and animations on Glass Street. The 2016 summer session focused on the creation of short videos on a social issue which were written and produced by the teens.

Studio Everything est. 2014

What it is: A creative resource, training, and empowerment studio located in East Chattanooga on Glass Street.

Rondell Crier describes himself and Studio Everything as a “community resource.” As someone who grew up in an underserved neighborhood of New Orleans, he understands the importance of community and individual empowerment. “To me, it’s not just about the art; it’s about what’s happening through the art – what it feels like to create and learn, and the power that can give you.”

Crier founded Studio Everything in 2014 as an individual arts project. Today he works in close partnership with Glass House Collective and continues as the studio’s resident professional artist. The space is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m., and activities are ever changing. Equipped with everything from paint brushes to power tools, it supports all types of art – from painting and sculpture to construction and woodworking. “Things happen organically here. I want to help our residents acquire practical skills, and so we respond to people and their needs,” says Crier.

Recently the studio helped two Hardy Elementary teachers create a podium and standing laptop desk. Now the studio is helping the same teachers transform a school bus into a mobile classroom called “The Passage,” which will take reading instruction out into the neighborhood.

One of Crier’s favorite encounters has been with regular visitor Mr. Nelson— a 57-year-old wheelchair-bound man who came to the studio wanting to create wooden plaques with Bible verses and other inspirational sayings. “Mr. Nelson has created about 60 plaques and put together an exhibit in the green space on the corner of Glass St. and Chamberlain Ave. He’s also become one of our instructors,” Crier says.

“I’ve seen a little window of possibility here and I want more,” he says, as he speaks of these experiences. Now his goal is to increase days of operation. He’s also exploring the possibility of hiring students and providing more opportunities to mentor students as they move toward employment age.   


Photos by Lanewood Studio

The Muse of Fire Project est. 2010

What it is: An after-school program for aspiring playwrights held at the Chattanooga Library.

Muse of Fire founder and director Stevie Ray Dallimore describes his nonprofit as a “cool after school theater club” designed to unleash kids’ creativity. Three times a year, the program invites 10 area students between the ages of 10 and 12 to become amateur playwrights. “At the heart of what we do is the belief that kids should be heard and respected for their ideas,” he says.

Muse of Fire is inspired by the renowned New York City 52nd Street Project where Dallimore volunteered while working as a professional theater and film actor. After relocating here in 2011 to raise a family, he decided it was time our city had a project of its own. Today, Muse of Fire acts in partnership with the Chattanooga Public Library, which supplies space for the project’s classes and performances.

During free playmaking classes held twice a week, students hone their writing and character development skills. Dallimore stresses that the project is not children’s theater; rather, it’s a full-blown theater experience where participants dictate the topics by relying on their own experiences and ideas, realities and perceptions.

The selection process is need based, and first-come, first-serve. No writing sample is required, only an active imagination and a desire to work hard. “We strive to bring together a diverse group in each session, so students come from all over the city,” Dallimore explains. “Part of our goal is to expose kids to new experiences and new people.”   

When the creative process is complete, adult actors take over to produce and act in the student creations complete with costumes, sets, and a musical score. Each session culminates in three live performances where the 10 completed plays are presented as the student playwright sits on stage. “It’s an exceptional and challenging beast—a combination of the Muppet Show, Saturday Night Live, and Broadway,” Dallimore explains.

What impact does he believe the project has on its young writers? Life skills like problem solving, completing a task, self-confidence, and giving and receiving feedback, to name a few. But perhaps the most important is the celebration of each young artist’s unique voice. “They literally stand taller as they take in the audience reaction and realize they have created a real play, and that adults have validated their work by bringing it to life.”

East Lake Expression Engine est. 2014

What it is: An El Sistema-inspired music education program based in Chattanooga’s East Lake neighborhood.

What does forming a children’s orchestra have to do with building a strong community?  Everything, according to East Lake Expression Engine (ELEE) Artistic Director Evelyn Petcher. “It’s a natural metaphor for a healthy community. It represents different instruments (diversity), each member must do their part (responsibility), and all must work together and pay attention to each other (cooperation),” she says.

On the surface, the nonprofit might look like any other youth music program. It offers training in musical skills and techniques. Regular concerts encourage kids to develop self-confidence and grow as performers.

However, learning music is only one small part of Expression Engine’s mission, Petcher says. “We’re far more comprehensive in our approach. Much of our work centers around developing life skills and exploring community identity.”

Operating out of New City East Lake (PCA), the organization partners with the church’s tutoring program for elementary age students. The curriculum is rooted in El Sistema, the world-renowned Venezuelan music program established to fight poverty and its surrounding social issues.

“The idea is that when you teach a child to play an instrument he is no longer poor,” says Petcher, quoting El Sistema founder Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu. Students are encouraged to develop leadership skills by engaging in peer-to-peer instruction. “Part of our model is inviting kids to teach friends what they’ve learned. It’s about coming together to share a love for music.” 

Currently, a total of 60 students meet four days a week to study musicianship, choir, bucket band, and orchestra. The program is free to all participants and local grants fund the instruments. 

The nonprofit’s five-year goals include expanding the number of schools it’s serving, broadening its curriculum, and establishing a presence in additional neighborhoods. “We want music to be available to every student in the city who wants it,” says Petcher. “It’s important for kids have a safe place to explore common interests and make friends who are different from themselves.”


Photos by Lanewood Studio