In a sunny summer day in July, painting instructor Jules LeMelle is setting up easels on the front porch of the Inspire Fine Art Center. The class he is about to teach to a group of youngsters between the ages of 10 and 13 is called Paint Like the Masters, but the children are not actually expected to emulate Renoir or Jackson Pollock, says LeMelle.

During two weeks of classes, he will lead the students to experience and understand the masters” styles while they produce their own artistic creations. Equally split between boys and girls, the children are clearly enjoying it.

“It”s amazing what children can do. Some of them grasp the concepts right away; others don”t, but what they create is still colorful and beautiful. It”s their original work,” says Inspire Center”s founder and executive director Susan Montagna as we sit down to talk after the class gets under way. “Our concept is to teach the techniques and then allow them to take over in the direction they want. That”s what”s fun — to see a kid or a grown-up go ‘Oh my gosh, I can do it!””

Montagna, who opened the community art center on West Sunset Road a year ago, believes more children and adults would explore their innate artistic inclinations if there were more places where they could do so. Yet, in a big city like San Antonio there are few non-college- based resources for adults, and at the same time children”s art programs are being downsized in the schools. The closing of the San Antonio Art Institute, once a popular community art school, has left a big void on the northeast side, and the situation is worse in the vast burgeoning city north of Loop 410.

“I felt there was a need for a place like this,” says Montagna, a tall, dynamic woman, who studied sculpture with Phil Evett, one of Texas” most innovative contemporary sculptors. “When the Art Institute was in existence, it played an important role as a community center. Now we have the Southwest School of Art and Craft downtown and little else. I think this city can support another center away from downtown.”

Though Inspire is a long way from becoming another SSAC, the modest but inviting establishment is equipped with all the essentials, and it”s open to adults and children of all ages, regardless of previous experience. In addition to painting, the school offers classes in ceramics, jewelry making, drawing, sculpture, printmaking and welding. Oddly, the latter has become one of the most requested classes, Montagna points out. A lot of people take it for practical reasons not related to art. The sprawling building also houses a tiny gallery where students” work will be displayed, and there is renovated studio space for artists to rent. Now that the center has officially obtained its nonprofit status, Montagna expects to apply for funding in order to offer scholarships and reduced rates to those who need them.

‘I want everyone to be comfortable here; to come and feel free to create,” she says.

ARTISTS EAGER TO PARTICIPATE

Word of the center”s opening spread quickly among San Antonio artists. As the founder was contemplating how to lure competent instructors, the latter were already knocking on her door. Besides LeMelle, teachers include Doug Olan, Alfredo Ibarra and Larry Dawdson (ceramics); Rachman Ullmer (sculpture); Jess Anderson (welding); Dan McBain (drawing) and others. Montagna doesn”t teach much herself, explaining that teaching is not her forte. Developing the program as a whole, marketing and now fund raising,are more than enough to keep her busy.

“We need to double our enrollment to break even,” she admits. “That”s why it is so important to do fund raising. I expect that the private sector will be the most important contributor for us. We do directmail campaigns, and we will have a fundraising gala in the fall with KRRT TV.”

Meanwhile, Inspire is reaching out to the wider community as much as it can. In partnership with the SoL Center, a University Presbyterian Church-based program, it has recently applied for city funding to create “a community wall” in District 9. Each city district sets aside $20,000 annually for similar collaborative neighborhood projects that encourage regular folks to express their identity through art.

In this particular case, the idea is for various groups — Boy Scouts, community centers, service organizations and others — to come up with designs for sections of the “wall” that will be either carved stone or mosaic renditions. Montagna and her crew will act as teachers and advisers to the participants. Though it hasn”t been decided yet, the “wall” may find its permanent home in Inspire”s front yard.

Another outreach effort is being realized in conjunction with the Family Service Association, thanks to a grant from the Ford Motor Company”s Salute to Education initiative. This one involves setting up a small art space at the Bexar County Children”s Court to keep kids occupied while they wait for their cases to come up.

“It”s our first grant, which we are very excited about,” says Montagna.

SHE CREATED HER OWN JOB

Growing up in Houston, Montagna never thought of herself as much of an artist because she couldn”t draw nearly as well as her two sisters. But while pursuing a business degree at Trinity in the early ’80s, she followed her instincts and signed up for a sculpture class taught by Phil Evett. It was one of those eureka! experiences. Not only did she fall in love with stone carving, but the class changed her perception of herself. Like the students at Inspire, she discovered that “I can do it! I am an artist after all!”

It was also at Trinity that she met Corpus Christi native Joe Montagna, whom she married soon after graduation. The couple settled in San Antonio since neither Houston nor Corpus appealed to them. Montagna tried various jobs for a while, including selling real estate, which didn”t suit her, and managing the Art Institute”s bookstore, which did. Nevertheless, a few years later, she became a mother and decided to devote herself to home and brood.

“For 12 years I volunteered in elementary schools, organizing art programs and teaching classes,” she says.

So it was logical that once she started contemplating career options again, art would be the obvious choice. From her earlier experiences, she knew she wanted to be in an art environment. After spending an additional five years getting her degree in sculpture from Southwest Texas State University, she was ready for the next step. Eventually she borrowed start-up money from her family”s business, hooked up with several enthusiasts who volunteered to serve on the board and took the plunge.

Then the hard work began. The first challenge was to find an affordable freestanding building in the area of her choice. The one she finally settled on had previously housed architects” offices and needed a lot of remodeling. Walls were knocked down to create a large studio space in the back, the yard was turned into a welding workshop, and needed equipment was installed. But the onestory structure retains a comfortable,

homey feel about it that art novices probably appreciate.

While all of that dusty work was going on, Montagna was also learning the ropes of running a nonprofit. Though her initial hope that Inspire would serve as a strong art resource for the primary schools in the area has been dashed, she is happy with the direction the center has taken.

Despite all this, she has not completely abandoned her personal work as a sculptor. “I do a lot of metal work,” she says. “For my own happiness I also have two stone pieces I am working on now. Eventually, I would like to do installations with light and sound and people”s shadows.”

The mention of installations widens our conversation for a while since it is mid-July, the height of Contemporary Art Month. Contemporary artists just love installations, including the type Montagna would like to pursue. Has she been around to see the shows?

“I have been so busy,” she answers apologetically. “My instructors keep me up to date. It”s been another challenge for me to keep abreast of everything that”s going on in San Antonio.” But she adds with a chuckle that instructor Dan McBain”s exhibition in the small Inspire gallery can be considered the center”s contribution to CAM. The gallery will eventually be subcontracted to someone else, however, to avoid any potential conflicts with the nonprofit status.

Besides growing the school to the point where it can be self-supporting, Montagna and her board envision an outreach project they call Barrio Escondido that will offer subsidized classes to individuals with disabilities, disadvantaged youths and older people with special needs. But not everything can be realized in a single year. It”s going to take time, money and persistence. Board members occasionally get the money jitters, but not the executive director.

“I feel so strongly that this is something that fills a gap in the community that the financial side doesn”t scare me. Well, maybe a little! But I get strokes from people (who use the center) every day that tell me that we are heading in the right direction. The board doesn”t see that,” she explains.

When the morning class lets out, we go around to the back studio to check out the students” handiwork. LeMelle explains that the first class was devoted to observation of nature, perspective, colors and experiencing the stimulus of what one sees. Judging from the results, there was clearly a lot of enjoyable experiencing going on. Each child focused on something different, but each produced a vividly colored image of that experience.

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Janet Rogers