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Not for Profit: School of Visual Arts and Careers

Dec, 10, 2006 — The islands oldest art school, which has produced hundreds of artists over the past 13 years, is looking for a home.
Two years ago, the School of Visual Arts and Careers (SVAC) lost the home that had nurtured it for more than 20 years at Fort Christian, leaving before renovations started on the structure. The school has not been invited back, says SVAC Executive Director Phebe Schwartz Davis.
"Charlotte Amalie High School has let us use a classroom for the past couple years, but we need our own home," she says. "We are hoping to find something by the end of this school year."
The school opened in 1983 as a pilot program at the Fort Christian Museum. "It had such a good response, it was decided to try to get it going full time," Davis says.
The school was started by Dolores Jowers, museum director; Princess Cureton; and artist Karen Bertrand. It serves as an after-school and summer program for artistically talented students from all of the islands schools — public, private and parochial.
Davis, an art teacher at Bertha C. Boschulte for the past 20 years, is passionate about the schools mission. One of the most satisfying aspects of SVAC, she says, "is seeing the talented and motivated kids really blossom under the individualized programming.
"More importantly, it is seeing them go on into further education and visual arts-related jobs."
To work around the traditional notion of the starving artist, school officials decided early on to take a practical approach and combine a knowledge of job and education opportunities along with the art instruction. The approach has paid off, Davis says. Almost all of the graduates have gone on to art school or college.
In fact, Davis says, since 1998, "One hundred percent of our graduates have gone on to art schools. Every single year, they are in college by the following September. And we had a pretty good record before that."
The success stories are legend. Not all the graduates are painters; many have found careers in related fields. Denise Humphrey, technical director of the University of the Virgin Islands' Reichhold Center, is a case in point.
Humphrey is a graduate of both SVAC and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, earning a bachelor of science degree in drama with an emphasis on technical theater. She returned home to apply her skills. An energetic and determined young woman, Humphrey works closely with her students, training them in various aspects of theater, technical and artistic. The youngsters have even produced their own movies.
"The knowledge and experience that I gained through the SVAC program aided me in my endeavor of becoming a scenic and lighting designer for the Reichhold Center for the Arts and Reichholds Caribbean Repertory Theater Company," Humphrey says. "The principles in design gained through SVAC classes provided me with the edge needed in communication that not many designers possess."
David Hill, another SVAC graduate who returned home, opened his own gallery in Royal Dane Mall last year. He is the youngest artist on St. Thomas with his own gallery. Hill graduated from the Art Institute of Boston in 2004, and paints in oils, acrylics and water colors. He is always exploring new mediums, he says. Hill has an etching press in the gallery, which also serves as his workshop most days. For the past two summers, Hill has taught watercolor classes for SVAC and any other interested students.
The economic going is tough, Davis says, a common problem in the art world. The school does get some grants to keep it going, and to pay something to the visiting art teachers who conduct workshops from time to time.
"In the mid-'80s, we started to get grants from the National Endowment for the Arts," says Davis, who administers the school's grant programs. "We periodically get grants from them."
And, Davis says, her pride showing, "Its kind of exciting — we are now on their register of exemplary art programs."
The not-for-profit school is funded in part by the V.I. Council on the Arts, local contributors and corporate donations. It has also received grants from the Law Enforcement Planning Commission.
"We have to apply every year for the grants," Davis says. "Their parameters change. Sometimes we qualify; sometimes we dont. Last night I picked up a check from First Bank for the second year. We got a really large grant from Driehaus (an Economic Development Commission beneficiary) before they left."
The students pay $65 a year in tuition, Davis says: "But even that is a hardship for some, so we kind of waive it sometimes." Art supplies alone cost SVAC $5000 yearly, she says.
"The $65 is a drop in the bucket," Davis says. "We get the best materials. We want them working with professional-grade supplies."
The students have a rigid schedule. They attend classes after school for two hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Keeping their regular school work current is a priority. Students attend summer school, and take time off for regular school vacations.
Artist Edie P. Johnson teaches the classes at CAHS and, along with Davis, coordinates the schools activities. The classes range anywhere from 20 to 25 students ages 13 to 18, usually from seventh to 12th graders.
"We have artists come in and donate time," Davis says. "They will do one or two-day workshops. Then, if we can, we pay them from grants. This year, United Way gave us what they call a one-time venture grant."
Davis is quick to explain, "Its not the same as the usual donation to a member agency. Its a new program within existing organizations. With it, every two weeks we have an artist from the community come in, or well go to their studio, and they will do two-hour workshop. Or we might do something in the field, like in Frenchtown with painter David Franke. You can almost always see him with his easel set up there."
"Or," she adds, "we might take the kids to Reichhold to do a workshop on stage design, or to Louis Ibles Flair Magazine to learn computer graphics."
Recent graduates are enrolled at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Central Florida and Savannah College of Art and Design.
"Most of the students follow through with a career in the arts, and some of them do come back home," Davis says. Along with Humphrey and Hill, she says, "Jennifer Peters went to Judson College in Chicago and majored in interior design. When she came back home, she got a job at Home Depot. You go in, and she will redesign your kitchen."
Rochini Nibbs has an unusual and upscale job, Davis says: "She is Anheuser-Busch art director, including Busch Gardens in St. Louis."
The school has an annual show at Bella Blu in Frenchtown, where the students actually get to sell their own artwork — original watercolors, mixed media, linoleum prints, and pastels — for prices ranging from $50 to $160. Claire Ochoa of Gallery St. Thomas, a member of the SVAC board, coordinates the shows.
The schools board includes local artists and art collectors: David Bornn, president; Ochoa, vice president; Edney Freeman, treasurer; J.J. Hawthorne, secretary; Louis Ible; and John Woods.
School officials universally lament the loss of its home at the Fort Christian Museum. "Usually we were in the big, common room to the south, and we always had our art shows at the fort," Davis says. "But we have not been invited back. We are desperate for a permanent home."
Where the school is concerned, Davis wears her heart on her sleeve.
"I love it, and I think its one of the better things Ive done with my life, to tell the truth," she says. "The way my will is set up, most of it goes for scholarships for the kids."
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