Every day after school, a group of Jefferson High students make their way to the Askew Design Studio to resume working on their art projects. They come because they love it, they say, not because they have to.
On this particular afternoon in late May, about 10 of them are busy with their artwork, designing mosaic table tops, making tile, putting in grout, etc. Sixteen-year-old Fernando Gomez has just put the finishing touches on a pretty green-and-cream table top commissioned by prominent San Antonian Edith McAllister for her beach house in Port Aransas. Nearby, Gilbert Martinez, 15, is working on a table top for his English teacher, while Lauren Monreal, 16, is taking a break from tiling her design with the Day of the Dead theme.
“The first one I made sold right away, and people have expressed interest in more on that theme. So I am making these for our June 14 show,” explains Monreal, as she shows off her latest creation. The design features two striking red skulls floating in a multicolored tile landscape bordered by tiny colorful “bones.”
Everything the teens make in this workshop is for money. Although Monreal has not yet put a price on her piece, Martinez already has a deal with his teacher: $150.
“We don’;t accept any work just for exposure,” explains the studio’;s founder/executive director Colleen Sorenson Frost, a tile artist with a passion for helping budding talent and neighborhood revitalization. “Artists are too often treated badly, not paid for their work or paid poorly. Everything that these kids do, they are paid for it. We want to connect them with the business end of art. We want them to learn that it’;s OK to be an artist for a living, but you have to know how to go about it.”
Frost originally moved her own studio into the space in the Woodlawn Theater building on Fredericksburg Road because she didn’;t want to be part of the Southtown artsy scene and because the place was cheap. But with her lifelong interest in urban renewal, she already had ideas on how she could combine all her passions into a single productive undertaking. With the cooperation of Jefferson High School art teacher Marcy Gutierrez, Frost founded Askew as “a design studio for urban youth” in the spring of 2002. Their goal was both to introduce talented youngsters to the world of professional art and to involve them in the beautification of the Deco District at the heart of their neighborhoods.
For the second part of the plan, Askew had to secure the support of the area neighborhood associations and the Jefferson/Woodlawn Lake Community Development Corporation in order to apply for an “Arts in the Community” grant from the city. Ever since, the students have been working on a series of decorative 3- by 4-foot mosaic-tiled signs which will eventually be installed along five blocks of Fredericksburg Road. Each sign features a design that the young artists chose to represent the character of their neighborhoods.
The students have also worked on other public art projects, including decorating a cow for last year’;s Cow Parade. Their cow still stands in the Central Library downtown. For that achievement, Frost gives credit to her husband, Tom Frost III, senior executive vice president of Frost Bank, who rounded up sponsors willing to collectively pay $23,000 for the sculpture and present it to the library as a gift. Upcoming projects will involve restoring decorative tiling on buildings in the Deco area and making tiled signs for Our Lady of the Lake University and possibly UTSA. In the fall, students from Lanier High School will be invited to join their Jefferson peers.
“The program has been wonderful for our students,” says Gutierrez, who continues to be involved. “I have seen a lot of improvement in the students who go there, not only in their craftsmanship, but in creativity, in the way they organize their work and in the overall responsibility level. Askew is not only teaching them an art craft, but other skills, too – how to curate a show, how to market themselves, how to get grants. It’;s an open door to what’;s outside of the school.”
For Frost, the studio is a dream come true – literally. For years she kept having a recurring dream about being in a clay studio with kids “and it was very hot outside, and people were coming and going,” she says. But it took a while to turn the dream into reality.
Reared in the ritzy Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, Colleen Sorenson attended the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Design, hoping to become a fashion designer. On a trip to New York to look into further training in fashion, she realized that churning out clothing collections was not really her calling. “I got more interested in old buildings and rummaging through dumpsters,” she says. This fascination with dilapidated urban sections which she wished she could save and preserve would stay with her throughout her life.
From New York, life took her to Dallas, Colorado, Chicago, San Antonio, back to Minneapolis and then to San Antonio again, where her family had relocated in the meantime. Along the way, she waited tables, married, had a daughter, dabbled in commercial real estate, ran a successful home day care and lived in a warehouse for a while. It was only after she returned to her hometown in the early ‘;90s, however, that she started tile work in earnest. And that’;s when the dream of kids clustered in a clay studio first appeared in her sleep. But she was in no position to do much about it.
“I was a starving artist. I didn’;t know how to make a living,” says Frost, recalling her life of not-so-long ago. “When I returned to San Antonio seven years ago, I was broke, mostly because of a health problem which took all my money. Being poor is an extremely humbling experience. I was raised in designer clothes but ended up buying clothes from the Salvation Army. People would not pay me for my work. Artists get taken advantage of a lot.”
What changed her life, she says, was meeting and marrying Tom, who besides being a banker, is also a respected songwriter. Suddenly, she was meeting people who could make things happen, and they were listening to her. Now her husband is on Askew’;s board, as is prominent artist Anita Valencia; UTSA’;s Bruce Bublitz, dean of the college of business; San Antonio College professor Richard Arredondo and others. Thanks to her new visibility, the former starving artist is also talking to Henry Cisneros about doing projects in his Prospect Hill neighborhood, which they both would like to see saved from deterioration.
A good-looking 52-year-old, Frost is once again donning fancy clothes for formal functions, but she spends her days in jeans, with no makeup, often getting her hands dirty along with the kids. And she still occasionally shows up in Salvation Army duds, as she did for a Jazz’;SAlive gala last fall. “I got lots of compliments on my clothes. I think the dry-cleaning bill cost more that the outfit,” she chuckles.
But what she appreciates about her new status is that she can help other artists. When the city’;s Office of Cultural Affairs pulled its support from Contemporary Art Month (after artists and dealers refused to move it from July to October), the Frosts offered Askew as the fiscal sponsor for the new CAM organization led by artist/curator Robert Tatum. The offer made it possible for CAM to receive tax-deductible contributions this year, while it is filing papers to get its own nonprofit status.
“I knew in my gut that it was the right thing to do,” says Frost. “I didn’;t want it (CAM) taken away from the artists. It took a little persuasion to convince Tom, but when I got him together with Robert, he finally said, ‘;Let’;s do it.’; When we were starting out with the signs project, we were helped by an existing nonprofit, so we were glad to do the same for someone else.”
Some 150 galleries and studios have signed up to participate in this year’;s July artfest, promising to make CAM 2004 one of the most successful in the event’;s 19-year history. Askew students will be in the middle of it all with their own day of glory, so to speak. They will be joined by art students from the Carver Community Cultural Center and San Anto Cultural Arts in a July 25 show at the Casa Navarro, 228 S. Laredo St. Frost and studio director Jenny Smith will also display their own installations. Another success that both Frost and Gutierrez are proud of is that two students, Gomez and Carly Garza, have received scholarships to work at the Southwest School of Art and Craft this summer in a grown-up professional environment.
If everything goes as the Frosts plan, the studio will soon expand its public art outreach without public money. “Public money was the seed that got us going,” says Tom Frost, who acts as the chief fund-raiser for Askew. “But we’;ll be raising funds from the private sector from now on and donating the finished works to the public.” Colleen finds the projects, he minds the money, he explains.
But he is not above contributing a little sweat equity as well. As I am preparing to leave in late afternoon, he, Colleen and Jenny Smith are busy fitting a slightly warped ceramic panel into a large metal frame. For a moment it looks iffy, but with some ingenuity they make it work. Some teens are in the back eating pizza; others wander about while the evening sun streams in through the storefront windows. I am thinking, Colleen Frost is definitely living her dream. It’;s hot outside, there are kids in her studio, and people are coming and going.
Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams