Art Appreciation: Q&A with Shelley Thomas, Founder of Early Masters

Shelley Thomas makes painting and sculpture come alive for children.

COVERING THE CANVAS. Shelley Thomas started Early Masters 10 years ago to teach kids about art and art history. Subject matter ranges from street artists to Leonardo da Vinci.

This article appears in print in the November 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Shelley Thomas has worked in fashion, advertising and food styling. In 2008, she founded Early Masters, an art and art history school in Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood for ages 8 and up.

What is Early Masters? Early Masters makes art history relevant for kids through visual presentation, music, conversation, stories and, of course, painting.

At what age do kids become afraid of coloring outside the lines? Thirteen! On their birthday! (Laughs.) When an 8-year-old does a painting and I ask them what they think of it, nine times out of 10 they’ll say, “I love it!” When I ask that same child that same question at age 13, they’ll be unsure. It’s like clockwork.

How did you come up with this concept? Art history has always been a passion of mine but I didn’t do anything with it until I taught the art of Frida Kahlo to my son’s preschool class. I told stories, we sang songs, we looked at paintings and I could see that the kids were really into it. I became the informal docent.

How do you keep the content from being boring history? It’s all about making the artist/painter/sculptor real and relevant. So, if I’m teaching about Claude Monet, I’ll show what art looked like before Monet hit the scene and talk about how passionate he was and how he revolutionized art during his time. I’ll also ask pointed questions, like, “How do you think you would respond to seeing this kind of art for the first time?”

Are parents surprised at the depth of Early Masters’ content? They’re surprised by how their child responds to the material. My favorite thing is when students visit museums with their families because they go with a list of artists they want to see and they notice all sorts of details in the art. They become little tour guides!

Are students required to have previous art experience? Nope. In fact, a lot of them have never sat in front of a canvas before. But kids are courageous. They watch me, they watch each other and just go with the flow.

Are your students copying paintings or interpreting paintings? I want them to make a painting as close to the reference copy as they can because copying is how all the great artists learned. That said, if we’re doing “Rooster” [The China Cock] by Georgia O’Keeffe, I guarantee you that every painting will be different, so there is always interpretation.

Have phones/devices affected students’ ability to pay attention? They haven’t because phones and devices aren’t allowed [in class]. I let them take a picture of their painting at the end, but that’s it.  

Have you ever had to kick a kid out? No. I did have one child who cried and had to go home because he was the only boy.

How do parents track what their child is learning? After every class, I give take-home notes, which are meant to be conversation prompts, like What is surrealism? or Who was Andy Warhol? I created it because when my own kids came home from camps, I’d ask them what they learned that day and the answer would inevitably be “I don’t know.” The right questions light kids up.

Have any of your students pursued careers in the arts? Yes! One is at the Rhode Island School of Design and another is going to study to be an art history professor. … It’s delightful.

Describe an experience in the classroom when you said to yourself, “This is why I do this!” It was the last day of a weeklong summer camp on Vincent van Gogh and I put on that Don McClean song, “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).” As we listened, more than one child had tears in their eyes and I thought, “Wow, they have really connected with this artist.” It was a beautiful moment.  

What makes you feel successful as a teacher? When kids leave with their artwork and present it to their parents. The child is so proud and the parent is delighted because they had no idea what their child was capable of. It doesn’t get better than that.

What are the consequences of art not being taught in public school? You get children who are not sensitive or observant to what’s going on around them. I believe art makes us more empathetic, more sympathetic and more aware of others.

Studies show $75,000 a year is the monetary baseline for a happy life, that anything above this amount won’t make you happier. Do you agree? I disagree because if I had more money, I’d be able to make Early Masters bigger and, therefore, more kids would be able to experience it. That would make me happy.

How would you describe your relationship to money? Slippery. (Laughs.)

Do you have a master plan for Early Masters? I want it to be accessible to kids from all economic backgrounds. That feels important and I’m figuring out how to make it happen.

Finish this sentence: “Shelley Thomas is …” “… just getting started.”

For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Zone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel.

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