Fox Art School raising bar for arts education in Denver

Fifteen to 20 kids assembled in an art gallery. All of them somewhere in the age range of 4 to 12. And a $10,000 painting hanging on the wall right over there. Not behind a pane of glass, or even blocked off by a velvet rope. Just hanging on the wall.
“On the first day, I say, ‘Okay, here are the rules: This painting costs $10,000. Do you have $10,000 to buy this art? So no splattering of paint, none of that kind of stuff,'” Sarah Fox says, with a knowing laugh (as in knowing that paint will be splattered, just making the point that it can’t be splattered in that direction). “Their eyes get huge!”
And with those big, saucer-like eyes, another Fox Art School camp begins in the Space Gallery on Santa Fe Drive. Sessions run essentially June through August, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to noon, and cost $150 per child for the week. The fact that there are some rather pricey paintings decorating the walls of the “classroom” is just one of the qualities that sets the Fox Art School apart from other local opportunities.
“This gives kids a more intimate look at the actual art world of Denver,” Fox says. “Here, they get to see behind the ‘curtain.’ There are studios upstairs, so they see where the ‘real’ artists work, and we walk around the entire gallery so each kid can pick his or her favorite piece. They get really into it. They tend to pick realism because they can’t explain the abstract stuff.”
Fox started her school in 2010 because of a somewhat disappointing reality that she couldn’t explain: An apparent lack of programs in Denver that focus on teaching art skills and art education and art appreciation.
“There was a void when it came to fine arts,” she says. “There are some places that are more craft-focused, but I think that’s doing a disservice to kids. They can do crafts at birthday parties. So I decided to fill that void and Fox Art School was born.”
School’s in session
It’s important to note that filling this void was not some quixotic artist’s idealistic dream for bettering the world. In addition to being a successful painter herself — about 25 percent of her income is generated by art; one of her pieces was featured on the television series The Following — Fox has real teaching chops. She started instructing at art camps in museums around Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she was 16. After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in painting, she taught art to physically disabled adults.
“That was my first true art education experience,” she says. “It was really hard. I had blind and deaf students, and quadriplegics. But I loved it. I fell in love with teaching.”
She then moved to Denver and, after a string of self-described odd jobs — such as selling toilets — Fox landed a sort of “artist-in-residence” gig at Slavens School. Eventually, though, funding dried up. Fortunately, her inspiration and passion never did, and while she would certainly stop short of any utopian “saving the world” portrayal, she does believe her school is making a real difference.
“It’s important to have a creative community,” she says. “I see the kids transform during our week, from shy and intimidated by the gallery to confident and proud of their own work. Kids have an unbelievable imagination. I want them to go crazy with it. They have the rest of their lives to conform to society and draw things how they’re supposed to look.”
“So I want to teach them art skills, but I don’t say, ‘Hey, when you draw a face, it should be an oval, and you have this T, and the eyes go here and a nose there.’ I would never teach that way. I teach art techniques and skills without hindering their creativity. And that’s a big deal.”
Getting gritty
Another big deal is the school’s location. It’s inside a living, breathing gallery, and, perhaps even more important, that gallery is right in the heart of the Art District on Santa Fe. “I think a lot of the parents of my students want their kids to be part of the culture over here,” Fox says. “It’s a grittier part of town [Fox estimates that almost one-third of participants come from the Stapleton neighborhood]. But it doesn’t phase the kids at all.”
In fact, they often get well acquainted with the grit. Each session has a particular theme. For example, offerings this summer include Puppet Parade, American Indian Art Summer, Mystery Week and Around the World in 5 Days. A year ago, Fox led a class that focused on a New York City artist who does sculptures with objects found on the city streets.
“There’s a little alley between these buildings that I use a lot,” Fox explains. “So I put a big sign that read ‘Welcome to New York’ on the gate and scattered all sorts of random stuff around. During class, I took the kids out to the alley and they were like, ‘Oh, wow!’ It’s just this little alleyway, but the kids thought it was so cool.”
After gathering the materials, they got to imagine and sculpt their own found-object piece to take home. Which is another signature of the Fox Art School. No matter the theme, Fox is mindful of the one universal kid-does-art truth: “They want to take something home!” she says. “So I always pick a topic that allows us to make something tangible. When the kids walk out, they’re hugging whatever it is they made that week. I think that’s cool.”

And who knows, maybe someday, one will sell for $10,000.

This story originally appeared in Confluence Denver here.