By Mark E. Vogler
---- — Editor’s note: Do you know anyone or any group making a difference in your community? If so, please let City Editor Warren Talbot know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LAWRENCE — After 20 years of inspiring the creativity of thousands of young lives, the Essex Art Center has become one of those places that community boosters like to call “the heart and soul of the city.”
The non-profit art center originally opened during February school vacation in 1994 in a storefront at 351 Essex St.. Located in the heart of downtown Lawrence, it quickly became a hangout for local kids to express themselves artistically. There, in a small classroom, teens and adults received art instruction. Area people of all ages from across the Merrimack Valley also came to view art in the gallery.
But the center quickly outgrew its quarters and relocated in 1995 to a new home at 56 Island St., where the space more than quadrupled. So did the opportunities for those who wanted to explore their artistic talents. And they responded with greater interest than the center’s creators ever imagined.
Classes are offered all four seasons. The center holds 12 gallery exhibitions. The opening reception of each one draws about 200 local and regional art lovers.
“People said, ‘you can’t do openings on a Friday evening in Lawrence because people won’t come’,” said Helen Tory, 67, of Essex. She is the center’s assistant director and one of three women who met at the now-defunct Bradford College and later founded the center.
“I think we gave people heart, though. Yes, people will come and appreciate the art in Lawrence. There has been an impact of the area where we are. People look up to the art center to helping develop that area,” Tory said.
“We love Lawrence. We won’t move from Lawrence. We love the people and the energy of Lawrence and we have brought a lot of people to Lawrence who wouldn’t have otherwise come,” she said.
Tory, Leslie Costello and Linda Maddox — all who studied art at Bradford College — embarked on a mission in 1993 to create a center where residents in Greater Lawrence could learn about and appreciate fine art. Their dream has done much more for the city and surrounding communities, particularly for the young children who have remained a primary focus of the center.
“We serve about 1,500 a year in after-school classes, groups and field trips, different schools we give classes to,” Tory said.
“Every single one of those children, whether they pay the full amount of registration or whether we give them full scholarship, they have an equal opportunity to explore art. There are kids who went to college who wouldn’t have otherwise dreamed of going to college. Taking art classes has given them confidence and hope and a sense of empowerment as well,” Tory said.
“We’re all about process, giving them an opportunity to explore. They are working with artists who introduce them to art and teach them. And then, they are given the opportunity to explore in small groups. We usually have maximum class of eight. It’s about finding out who they are and exploring their own creativity,” she said.
The center’s most popular age group is 6 to 12. But the 50 on-call artists who teach classes and workshops have students ranging from 4-year-olds all the way up to 90-year-olds. The center fills the void as an important resource to community organizations, neighborhoods, charter schools and public schools in providing art education.
People with learning and physical disabilities, young graffiti artists who have gotten in trouble with the law and those from poor economic backgrounds all benefit from the center’s programs.
Most of the students come from the Merrimack Valley, Southern New Hampshire and communities throughout Essex County. Some come up from Boston. About a third are Lawrence residents.
“The thing I am most proud of is that people from a very diverse group of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are mixed together — rich-poor, black-white — and we have no problems, that I love,” Tory said.
Kids remains the future target of the nonprofit organization that has helped reshape the lives of thousands of young people already.
“We’re very interested in working more with the high schools. There’s a lot to be done. One of our aims at the moment is to get a good solid program with the public schools,” Tory said.