While theater patrons took their seats at the Mesa Arts Center on a recent Tuesday evening, just feet away ceramics students put the final touches on their projects, analyzing glaze colors, crafting bowls on the wheel or sanding pieces before they would go into a kiln. Just a few doors down, a pair of students worked in an outdoor studio, shaping glass glowing red from its recent placement in fire.
The Mesa Arts Center is known for the world-class performances it brings to town. But it’s also becoming a hub for budding artists – and professional artists — wanting to put their creativity to the test.
During the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30, adults attended more than 22,000 classes ranging from ceramics, glass blowing, jewelry making and more at the center. And while youth attendance dropped since the economy started to fail in 2008, adults are getting back into the programs. Attendance took a hit in fiscal year 2010, with the recession. But numbers have climbed back up since then, nearly reaching fiscal year 2009 levels.
“In the last couple of years, enrollment has gone way up,” said ceramics instructor Jesse Armstrong. He gets students of all levels, from working professional artists to neophytes.
“Sometimes people are just coming to it on a whim and have never touched clay before,” he said. “Some just want to try something new. During the day, there are a lot of retirees. Certainly in the night and weekend classes, we have a diverse population. There certainly has been a lot of awareness that’s been fostered.”
Gilbert resident Nora Butler sat before a pottery wheel Tuesday night using a tool on the clay while it spun to put a “foot” on it to rest evenly.
“I took it (ceramics) in high school and loved it. I thought it would be fun to get back into it. It’s hard, but it’s fun. It’s nice to see something you’ve made,” she said.
Phoenix resident Myrna Johnson and her husband, Virgil Reeves, are taking their first classes at the Mesa Arts Center. While Reeves has never taken an art class before, Johnson has taken classes elsewhere.
On that Tuesday night earlier this month, she worked to color clay sculpted into the shape and design of a Maori mask.
“Here, there are different ability levels. You see a lot of stuff that’s inspiring and there are a lot of working artists. You get to see amazing pieces,” she said.
One of those working artists is Jeanie Thorn, a metals sculptor. She decided to take the ceramics class to create mixed-media pieces for her next art show in Scottsdale.
“At this particular place, the instructors are amazing. The facilities are incredible. To have these kinds of kilns, you just can’t do that,” on your own, she said.
Enrollment opened last week for the next set of classes, which begin in January, said Billy Jones, the center’s education director.
He said part of the reason the youth programs have dropped is because the center had to make staffing cuts a few years ago and the youth performing arts teachers were let go.
“They used to go to schools and promote classes and stir up interest. Without those teachers, I don’t have people to do that so much,” he said. We lost those three positions and they had a strong following.”
He’s got plans to boost the youth program once again through local partnerships, he said. In the first step, the center will work with Conder Dance Co. to create a dance club for junior high and high school students. Students will take classes at the center and then be offered opportunities for discounts when dance companies perform or offer professional training. Membership will be based on recommendations from their teachers and they would be required to maintain good school grades.
“If that goes well, I would like to try the same thing with local theater groups,” he said. “We’re looking for ways to revamp our youth program. We’re bringing back our teen arts camp this summer.”
He also plans to work with improv and poetry groups.
Jones believes the adult classes have boomed again because people are looking for affordable activities.
“I think people had to find stuff locally to do. They weren’t traveling as much. Even our youth classes for a couple of years went up. Now that the economy is going up, families are starting to do more,” he said.
Mesa Arts Center is one of the largest facilities of its kind, he said. And, “it’s the only facility that has performing arts, visual arts and the theater all in one location. So we have a much bigger facility than most people do. We have a much bigger range of classes we offer. We’re pretty unique in that aspect,” he said.
For more information on classes, see mesaartscenter.com.
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