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Urban Bright 

Art House brings art out of the shadowy halls of the elite.

Osterland's classroom assistant Santina Protopapa - (right) helps Doniesha Kinney, Samantha Childs, and - Destiny Sutphin (from left) transform clay into art. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Osterland's classroom assistant Santina Protopapa (right) helps Doniesha Kinney, Samantha Childs, and Destiny Sutphin (from left) transform clay into art.

Christian Osterland's fifth-grade art class parades across Denison Avenue and into Art House. Once inside, the Denison Elementary students plop down at big work tables.

The noise crescendos. "Eyesssup heeere pleeease," Osterland gently admonishes. With dark blond hair and black-rimmed glasses, he's the kind of teacher everybody loves: laid back and cool. He's ready to demonstrate pottery techniques, but the kids are drooling over the mega-chunk of chocolate-colored clay at the front of the room.

After oohing and aahing through his demo, the kids attack their own portions. Minutes later, SpongeBob dinnerware and star-shaped bowls materialize. The creations will be glazed and kiln-fired, then sent home, ready for Skittles and Fruity Pebbles. In coming weeks, the kids will make pots on power-driven potter's wheels and draw animals at the zoo.

These are firsts for Osterland's students. When the school's population exploded seven years ago, he and Denison's other art teacher lost their shared classroom. Toting crayons and construction paper from class to class, he nicknamed himself the "Bag Man." He got his classroom back this year, but may lose it again next. His room, though, has no pottery wheels or giraffes.

The children, too, have very little: 96 percent of Denison's students live at the poverty level. The median household income in Brooklyn Centre is less than $19,000; in Old Brooklyn, it's about $7,000 more. Without Art House, classroom 202's adventures in art would be a pipe dream.

Students aren't the only beneficiaries: Art House caters to all of Brooklyn Centre and Old Brooklyn, hosting artists' groups, studio classes, off-site programs, and music concerts -- many of them free. The nonprofit center grew out of the grassroots effort of five women, who used research and smart planning to create a cultural oasis for their downtrodden neighborhood.

"People come up to me all the time and say, 'This is the best thing that's ever happened to our community,'" says Councilwoman Merle Gordon, who landed the block grants Art House used to purchase its property. "Here, we have to go pretty far to get arts and entertainment activities. We wanted a place we could walk to and be part of."

The driving force behind Art House is sculptor Sheryl Hoffman, its co-founder and executive director. With an infectious smile and down-to-earth demeanor, she's the ideal public face. "I figured Art House will help our neighborhood redefine itself, give it a new focus, and act as a catalyst for positive change," Hoffman says. "And God knows we need it."

When Hoffman bought a house in Brooklyn Centre 14 years ago, she was part of a small wave of artists moving in, lured by cheap but charming fixer-uppers. For years, she hosted casual artmaking days in her backyard studio, where friends and neighborhood kids created side by side, and talk simmered about sharing their passion for art with more people. By 1999, Hoffman and her friends presented Gordon with their plan for a neighborhood arts center. Within a week, they found a property -- a dingy, vacated Quonset hut that had been an army barracks, Pentecostal church, and glass factory. It would need work.

Over the next three years, Hoffman, her co-founders (who now make up Art House's board of trustees), and volunteers worked day jobs, tending to the fledgling center at night. Hoffman's home office was command central; classes were held off-site. By 2001, she became its first paid employee. A year later, contractors and volunteers had installed new wiring, plumbing, walls, and windows, and Art House moved into its new home. The 55-year-old building -- now a sun-drenched, cathedral-like space with sparkling white walls and concrete floors -- is ideal for messy art-making.

When Art House held its grand opening last November, 150 people came: Families threw pots, made jewelry, and sang songs. Outside, the once-littered grounds now flaunt flowering trees and a bed of tulips. It's a fresh face for the neighborhood, a mix of rundown Victorian homes, Soviet-bloc apartments, and storefronts frozen in the '50s.

Art House is also a fresh face among urban art centers, according to the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. The Cleveland think tank, created to revive cultural assets threatened by slashed budgets and public disconnect, calls Art House a model urban arts center, because residents -- not developers -- choose its content, based on resident surveys and community meetings.

"They're individual artists who've decided to become neighborhood activists, and they've looked at the methods of good urban planning and development," says Tom Shorgl, CPAC's president.

About 50,000 people live in Brooklyn Centre and Old Brooklyn, a melting pot of black, white, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Latino. Art House's free youth programs emphasize cultural awareness: Kids make Mexican crafts, Native American pottery, and African masks, not just European-influenced watercolors and collages. This summer, Denison's graduating fifth-graders will make a video on the history of Brooklyn Centre. Next school year, Art House will host a weekly "Studio 53" after school, in which youngsters get free studio time. Portable Art House programs reach out to an Old Brooklyn arts camp and area facilities such as Brookside Center, an agency that helps low-income families.

"Our kids need the arts to be 100 percent literate," Osterland says. "Spending money on Art House is helping the community as much as having the streets paved."

The center also offers a unique mix of fee-based workshops and classes for children, teens, adults, and families, ranging from pinhole photography and mobile making to life drawing and stone carving. A recent class on silk-scarf painting was attended by children, adults, and seniors.

Artists both fuel and benefit from the center's programs. Instructors' salaries come out of Art House's tiny budget, cobbled together from grants, fund-raisers, and private donations. Debby Cowdin dumped her business suits in 1999 to become a self-employed glass artist. When she first hooked up with Art House in March 2002, she was struggling to sell her work. Now she teaches at the center, and her work is in galleries citywide. Cowdin's the vice president of the Self-Employed Artists' Network (SEAN), an Art House-sponsored support group that offers marketing tips and camaraderie.

SEAN's president, Rod DeFoe II, is also newly self-employed. A ceramist and sculptor, he uses Art House's wide-open space to create giant sculptures. As a visiting artist in Osterland's class, DeFoe worked on a 12-foot tree made of copper tubing. It's now on display at Holden Arboretum.

"The kids have been most interested in the artists," Osterland says. "In their daily life, they're not exposed to actual living artists."

"We got to meet a really famous artist who was in the newspaper," says 11-year-old Matthew Mosley, one of Osterland's students. "He showed us how he made that copper tree over there."

For all its good works, life at Art House isn't all sunshine for Hoffman. She works six days a week, assisted by 30 volunteers. With no ad budget, she toils to dispel residents' myriad misconceptions --about Art House's funding, about what Art House does, about art in general. Many assume the center is for children only; others have never even heard of it.

"We need streets paved, we need curbs, we need driveways," says one nearby resident. "We've got money for Art House, and look, the whole damn neighborhood is falling apart around us."

It's a typical refrain for Hoffman. But the $175,000 block grant Art House used to purchase and renovate its hut can't fix potholes -- it was strictly for community development. The grants it uses for programs and operating expenses are earmarked solely for arts projects.

But some residents are getting it. Hoffman recalls an elderly widower whose wife had been an artist. He brought in her paintings and a scrapbook stuffed with 1940s newspaper clippings about her shows, and asked Hoffman to keep the book and some of his wife's works.

"That kind of thing is so great to be able to bring out to children and say, 'Look, here was an artist who grew up in the neighborhood and became -- maybe not world-famous, but well known,'" she says.

Art House, too, needn't be world-famous. Hoffman will gladly settle for well known.

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