What is GOOD ART? – by Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky

What is GOOD ART?
by Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky                                       http://www.StoneHollowStudio.com

Someone recently remarked to me, “Even when I see what I know is great art, I don’t know what makes it good.   I just don’t know much about art.”

That comment prompted a discussion. It caused me to realize that my non-artsy friend is probably not alone in wondering what determines ‘good’ art, that many people stroll through museums without understanding why certain works are lauded as great. And, sometimes notable art can be intimidating. There can be embarrassment in saying, “I just don’t get it.”

The feeling that one is not knowledgeable about art also prevents the purchase and collection of art from contemporary artists. And that’s a real loss, both for today’s artists and for those who surrender to the ennui of décor. Who knows what future-great artist is working in your area? What great works might a collector scoop up but doesn’t because of a lack of confidence? Art investment can be a gamble but it’s a risk that can also enhance your abode.

Learning the fine skills of art appreciation can take years, indeed a lifetime, to fully develop. University courses offer wonderful in-depth study of the intricacies involved to understand art.

My intention here is not to diminish that study at all, but to simplify it for those with limited time or interest. It is my strong opinion that anyone can develop an ability to appreciate art.

After much consideration, I think that which makes art ‘good’ can be distilled down to five basic questions that I believe remain true for all works.

Do you like it?

Certainly, personal taste determines what comprises a private art collection. There are simply things we like, and things we don’t, things we are drawn to and things that repulse us. The initial question need not be “Why do you like it?” but simply “DO you like it?”  Of course, the reason why you like a work can generate extensive examination and debate. And, because this particular qualification is so extremely personal, it should be restricted to private art collections. Without a doubt, the art you privately collect should be work you like. Nevertheless, for the museum visitor, this question can also lead one to cultivate a list of favorite works as well.

Does it draw you in for a closer look?

The urge to get closer to a work of art is a sure sign that it’s speaking to you.

Why does the work draw you closer? Is it because you are intrigued by the artist’s technique (brush strokes, manipulation of the material, etc.) and wish to study its detail? Some works have the ability to immerse the viewer when viewed closely. Good art pulls you in; it does not allow a viewer to pass it by. Equally, the urge to step far back and spend some time viewing the overall work can similarly denote quality.

Does it cause you to think?

Good art is not necessarily pretty art. It does not match your sofa nor blend into your color scheme. It might make the viewer uncomfortable. But, whether disturbing or delightful, good art triggers consideration.  Even if the work is not understood, the very fact that it prompts you to wonder about it indicates a depth of meaning. Good art reaches beyond the canvas or the clay or whatever medium it may be.

Is it innovative?

Innovation can be simple or complex. The cave paintings of Lascaux, France remain avantgarde even after 20,000 years. The Impressionists of the nineteenth century continue to engage us, as future art-lovers will be intrigued by the technological elements being utilized today by contemporary artists.

Does it compel you to return?

This final proviso is closely related to the very first offered in this list. Whether you like a work of art or are repulsed by it, if the work lures you back, it has touched you. Think of a work you have seen but didn’t like. You remember it, don’t you? If you disliked it, why do you remember it?  Art stirs the viewer. Art connects with you. If unable to revisit a work in person, study it in a book or online.

Art is much more than five simple attributes.  Arguably, there are many, many additional components that can be employed to qualify ‘good’ art.  I believe, however, that the above facets offer a solid starting point for art appreciation.

Armed now with some indicators of how to evaluate art, let’s consider how to experience art, particularly in museum collections.

Again, I offer my opinion and encourage you to consider this:

Who goes to a restaurant and orders every item on the menu in one sitting? So why then do we feel that we must see everything in a museum in just one visit?

Understandably, a person may visit a particular museum only once in a lifetime, perhaps while traveling abroad, for example. But which is better? To say that you set foot into all the exhibition spaces in The Prado, or to personally know the powerful emotion portrayed in Goya’s El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May)? To have sprinted upstairs and downstairs in the Chicago Art Institute, or to experience delight as if on the picnic in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte?

To maximize your artistic experience to a museum, rather than racing through every gallery, select one or two exhibition areas (or perhaps only a few individual works) and visit just those, as you would visit a friend. Take your time to get to know them better. Observe what you have not before seen in the work. Think. Remember. Return to revisit those works, or to view different works in the same manner. If unable to return, explore online options. Your artistic experience will definitely be enhanced.

Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky is an award-winning artist whose work includes murals, drawing, illustrations,   sculpture, painting and photography but, for the past 39 years, she has carved herself a reputation as a master of the early American art form of scrimshaw.

Mike and Emmet

Perfect Harmony: The River Blenders Chorus

Since 1978 the River Blenders Chorus has performed for audiences far and wide. The group sings barbershop harmony and has been a member of Sweet Adelines International since their inception. Although that may sound a little “old-timey,” let me assure you that the River Blenders have taken the art of barbershop harmony to a whole new level. The group’s next performance, entitled “The Bedrock Road Show,” will be held on November 4 and is inspired by everyone’s favorite stone-age family, the Flintstones.

Each year this company of women concocts a fantastic new theme show for the chorus, complete with a script, choreography, outrageous costumes and heaps of hilarity. Past performance highlights have featured themes taken from “Laugh-In,” “Psycho/Bates Motel” and “Orange is the New Black.”

The vocal quality of the group is quite superb as well, and the Blenders have proven their mastery of song by winning a number of prestigious awards, including First Place in the Harmony Classic Division AA Chorus Competition in 2015 and the Regional Chorus Competition Division AA Midsize Chorus Award in 2014. They are also the current Region 5 Sweet Adelines International Champions.

The barbershop style of singing originated in America in the 1830s when local neighborhood barbershops became a common gathering place for men. Often a barber would sing to entertain his customers while he worked, and customers would add their harmonies and use “call and response” types of songs as their repertoire. Around 1890 the advent of printed sheet music helped to propel the style to the top of “Gay 90s” culture. When vaudeville houses began using Barbershop Quartets to entertain audiences between acts, the traditional costume evolved to include oversized mustaches, red and white striped vests and straw hats.

River Blenders 2011

So, what is Barbershop Harmony anyway? According to Wikipedia, it is “a style of a cappella close harmony, or unaccompanied vocal music, characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note.” Each quartet will have a leader who sings the melody, a tenor who sings harmony above the melody, a bass who provides the bottom of the chord and a baritone who provides another harmonic note to complete the chord. The Barbershop Chorus is simply a larger group singing in the traditional four part manner described above.

Diane Huber, a self-described “homemaker and domestic engineer,” originally joined the group as a member of the chorus, but in 1989 assumed the position of Musical Director, a position that she still holds today. When asked about her background, Diane advises “I served on the Sweet Adeline International Board of Directors for 12 years, was the International President from 2004-2006 and I’ve coached choruses and quartets all over the world. I was also in a championship quartet called Ambiance and we traveled extensively to teach and perform for 10 years.”

Musical Director Diane Huber

Sweet Adelines International, born in 1945, is an organization dedicated to the preservation of Barbershop Harmony and providing competitive opportunities for female barbershop quartets. Today the Adelines hold an international competition that hosts over 8,000 participants annually.

Diane discloses that over the years the River Blenders have had as many as 110 members, with approximately 85 currently participating. The youngest member is 19 and the oldest may possibly be around 90, although no one is brave enough to ask. Diane says that the group is a “great mix of women from all walks of life, including doctors, educators, stay-at-home moms, students and a variety of others.”

The group has had many notable performances over the years, including several opportunities to sing the National Anthem at Busch Stadium, providing vocal backup for both Kenny Rogers and Andy Williams at the Fox Theatre, and even singing for then President Ronald Reagan at an event under the Gateway Arch.


Most of the arrangements performed by the chorus are obtained from Sweet Adelines International, however the River Blenders are lucky to have Kevin Keller, a choir member’s husband who is also a musical arranger, and Holly McKee, a member of the chorus, who write and contribute special arrangements for the group. Kevin and Holly have crafted many of the specialty numbers used by the group and, according to Diane, have been a god-send for the chorus. It is often these specialty numbers that give the chorus a leg up in competitions.

When asked what she would like the public to know about the River Blenders, Diane conveyed “I would love for people to know who we are and what we’re all about; about the education and empowerment that these women gain by being members. The group currently performs in public about six times a year, but we would love to perform more!”


In 2018 the International Convention and Competition of Sweet Adelines will be held in St. Louis at the America’s Center, where the River Blenders will be competing in the International Chorus Competition. Stiff competition from Europe, Asia, Australia and, of course, from all over North America will be there, but there is little doubt that the Blenders will bring home another trophy.

The River Blenders Chorus rehearses each Monday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville. Rehearsals are open to anyone who is curious or might be interested in joining the group. Diane relays, “The doors are always open, come to any rehearsal. We’d love to have the company!”

“The Bedrock Road Show” performance is on Saturday, November 4 at 8 p.m. at the Purser Center at Logan University in Chesterfield. For more information visit www.riverblenders.org.

Fair Trade Market: Holiday Shopping for a Cause

The Manchester United Methodist Church (UMC) will host its 15th Annual Fair Trade Market, the largest of its kind in the nation, over two weekends in November. The event will feature globally-crafted items, holiday gifts and international foods.

Fair Trade is a movement that provides farmers and artisans, most often from Third World countries, with a “living wage” for their products. To be considered for Fair Trade inclusion, products cannot be harmful to the environment and manufacturers cannot use child or forced labor, must promote gender equality and enforce safe working conditions.


Edana Huse is a church member who has been heavily involved in the coordination of the event since 2002. When asked how the idea for the annual market was conceived, Edana relays “Kellie Sikes, who was a member of our church years ago, was very much into social justice. She knew the people at Plowsharing and talked to them about doing something. When it (the market) first started, it was just a table or two.”

Edana continues, “Then Kellie left, so I stepped up and co-chaired with Kimi Butler.” Edana has since relinquished her co-chair position, but still works as a liaison between the church and the market vendors. According to Edana, “quite a few thousand people come in for the two weekends.”


Rich Howard-Willms, Executive Director of Plowsharing Crafts, has been involved with the market since its inception. Plowsharing Crafts was established in 1985 and for years operated out of a single shop on Delmar in the University City Loop. More recently, Rich has opened two volunteer-operated satellite stores in the heart of Kirkwood and in Town & Country. The organization is associated with the St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship and is a member of the Fair Trade Federation. Many of the products that they sell are made with sustainable and recycled materials.

Other vendors participating in this year’s market include Partners for Just Trade, selling items from Peru, and Roots-n-Streams, whose products come from Uganda and Cambodia.


In addition, Heifer International will be onsite selling items and raising funds to send livestock to villages in Third World countries. The group maintains a global effort that works to end poverty and hunger through sustainable community development. They distribute cows, goats, bees, water buffalo and other animals to poverty-stricken nations.  Heifer is well known for going the extra mile in its efforts, as Edana confirms by pointing out “If they send a cow, they send one that is pregnant.”

The types of items offered at the market will feature over 3,500 square feet of handbags, baskets, jewelry, clothing, toys, musical instruments, textiles, coffee, chocolate and much, much more. All proceeds collected from this operation will help to supply food, education, clothing and medicine to orphans in Africa.


Approximately 330 volunteers will be required to prepare and manage the market. Phil Wiseman, Director of Strategic Communications at Manchester UMC, advises that there are all kinds of activities to be completed, from unboxing items and cashiering to teardown. Anyone interested in volunteering is more than welcome and interested parties can sign up easily online.


The Fair Trade Market will be held on the weekends before and after Thanksgiving, November 18-19 & November 24-26, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. The Music Makers, a 4th and 5th grade music group from the church, will open the market with a performance at 11 a.m. on Saturday, November 18.

For more information visit www.manchesterumc.org/fair_trade_market.


Vintage Market Days: Everything Old is New Again

Now in its third year, Vintage Market Days has become a favorite bi-annual event for thousands of area residents. Held each Spring and Fall in Chesterfield, this “upscale vintage-inspired indoor/outdoor market” features original artwork, antiques and vintage furniture, clothing, jewelry, crafts, home décor, outdoor furnishings, live music, a food court, plants and much more.


This franchised pop-up market originated in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2011, and in six years has expanded to a staggering 60 cities across the U.S. The traveling bazaar of vendors, who are chosen for their shared affinity of nostalgia, offer a large selection of vintage inspired styles, ranging from steampunk to shabby-chic.


A portion of the proceeds will benefit Tri-SAR, a search and rescue volunteer group dedicated to finding lost or injured persons.


The festival runs October 20-22, with gates opening at 10 a.m. and closing Friday and Saturday at 5 p.m., and on Sunday at 4 p.m. Early-bird admission for Friday is $10, with Saturday and Sunday admissions at $5; children under 12 are free. Purchased tickets are good for the entire weekend.


The event will be held at Chesterfield Mall near Sears. For more information, visit vintagemarketdays.com/market/st.-louis.

Eureka’s Invasion of the Scarecrows

For the fourth October in a row the city of Eureka presents their annual Scarecrow Festival, featuring hundreds of whimsical creations made from reclaimed materials and displayed throughout the town. Each scarecrow has its own unique personality and its own story.

The festival is the brainchild of local resident Barb Scheer, who recalls, “in 2013 I went on a girl’s trip to California and we went to Cambria, near Hearst Castle. As we went into this little town, they had over 300 of these types of scarecrows, all artistically done, and I just went nuts. I thought, ‘I have to bring this back to Eureka.’”


She continues, “I came home and did research and there was nothing like it around. I put a presentation together and went to the Board of Alderman with it. It took us a while to convince them, but about 6 to 8 meetings later we finally got them on board and they gave us a grant.”

The first year of the festival featured 107 scarecrows on the streets of Eureka, with Barb personally crafting 54 of them. The program was an instant hit with residents and, as hoped, people throughout the region began visiting Eureka to see the parade of characters.


For the last three years the entire festival was organized by Barb, who handled all of the marketing and administration, the registrations, monitored the website and the Facebook page, plus created most of the scarecrows with the help of several fellow artists. The tasks became too numerous, so she went to the Mayor of Eureka and said “I’m going to have to give it up, I only have a handful of women and I can’t do all of this myself.” The Mayor and Chamber agreed to take on the marketing and administration in 2017, leaving Barb and her team to focus on the construction and maintenance of the scarecrows.

Barb admits that she never had an art lesson in her life, but she loves the visual arts. As a mother of small children she took on the hobby of painting wall murals and managed to develop very admirable and capable skills. Barb worked in sales, marketing and event planning for many years and for the last ten years handled all of the major events for Belden Incorporated. Her work background made her a natural when it came to managing this immense project.

Barb Scheer
Barb Scheer & Friend

The Farmers and Merchants Bank in Eureka provides a basement workspace and storage area for the scarecrows, where they are created, cleaned, dressed, restored and housed for most of the year. The artists work year round on this project, and a visit to the workspace reveals an army of scarecrows in various stages of construction. Almost all of the materials come from local garage sales and donations, and any item that needs to be purchased is usually found online at the lowest possible price.

Older scarecrows from past years are cleaned, redressed and sometimes re-fashioned into new characters for the coming year. Other favorites, like “The Ugly Bride,” will return for another year of service.


Any business, organization or school in Eureka has the option of creating their own scarecrow, renting a scarecrow, or having a custom scarecrow created by Barb’s team of volunteer artists. Participants can also opt to rent a scarecrow for $100 and, as Barb explains, “it has their business name and information on it. (Renters) don’t have to put it up, they don’t have to take it down, they don’t have to maintain it, and it goes away at the end (of October).”

A custom scarecrow will cost $200, which includes a planning meeting with the commissioner, creation, installation and maintenance. This year Barb advises that there will be close to 200 scarecrows on display and hopes that each year the number will continue to rise. She is constantly thinking up new ideas, or seeking inspiration online.


The public will have a chance to vote for their favorite Scarecrow on the festival’s website. The City of Eureka has several events planned around this year’s festival, with a Photo Scavenger Hunt October 6-8, a Witches and Warlocks Walk October 13 and an Artisan Fair on October 14.

Full details can be found at eurekascarecrowfestival.com.

Chesterfield Valley Pumpkin Patch opens for first season

Each weekend in October, the Chesterfield Valley Pumpkin Patch celebrates the onset of autumn with a wonderland of activities for the whole family. The grounds feature a large display of mums, pumpkins and gourds, with sizes ranging from tiny to gargantuan.


Since the early 1950s, Chesterfield Valley has been known as the go-to place for Fall and Halloween weekend activities. The renowned Rombach Farms hosted a large pumpkin patch each October for decades and became a yearly tradition for several generations of school children and their families. This past July, the owners announced that the farm would be shutting down and that there would be no pumpkin patch this year. In a Facebook posting, the owners expressed, “We want to thank everyone for all of these years of fun…. lots of great memories!”

Having been one of Rombach’s activity contractors for the past 20 years, Betty Miller was approached and asked to manage a new pumpkin patch, hosted by the City of Chesterfield.


For $18 kids can get a wristband which entitles them to all activities for the day. Attractions include hayrides, pony rides, train rides, a duck pond and dozens of large, colorful Halloween inflatables. The fun doesn’t stop there however, as youngsters can participate in face and pumpkin painting, sand art, visit the petting zoo or play in a pit filled with corn kernels.


Admission is free for adults, for whom the facility provides a wine and beer garden with craft beers and live music. Fall foods are available for everyone and will include favorites like caramel apples, kettle corn, funnel cakes, nachos, turkey legs, chili, apple cider, hot chocolate and much more.

The Pumpkin Patch is located on 9 acres next to the St. Louis Premium Outlet Mall on Olive Street Road. They are open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. thru October 31, but please note that activities are only scheduled for Saturdays and Sundays. There is plenty of free parking and free shuttle service available. Special packages are available for birthday parties and corporate events.

For more information, visit: chesterfieldvalleypumpkinpatch.com.

Exhibit Honors 20th Anniversary of St. Louis Artist’s Death

A 20th Anniversary Memorial exhibition honoring local artist Nate McClain will be displayed September 8th and 9th at St. Louis ArtWorks on 5959 Delmar Boulevard in the Loop East. Painting The Town: Legacy of Nate McClain features over 50 works by McClain including his award-winning Arnolfini Pasta Portrait, original paintings, vibrant portraits, and engaging still lifes. In addition, the exhibition will be supported by archival material including smaller works, Kodak National Honors photographs, and his first published piece at age 4.

Arnolfini Pasta Portrait
Arnolfini Pasta Portrait

Nate McClain was an emerging artist who tragically passed away at age 24 from a Mississippi River drowning accident in 1997. Born in Granite City IL, Nate was an only child and became a published artist at age 4 when his Happy Birthday Card was sold nationally by Hello Studio’s. He pursued art with a passion winning student contests and earning a Fine Arts degree in Illustration from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State). His mother passed away from cancer in 1993 which had a profound impact on him as she was also an artist and his biggest advocate. After college, he lived in the Washington Avenue ArtLofts in St. Louis as a freelancer being commissioned for a 9-foot mural of Ozzie Smith for his retirement from baseball. Nate was offered a Head Art Director position around the time of his passing.

Ozzie Smith Retires
Ozzie Smith Retires

Painting The Town: Legacy of Nate McClain is the first major retrospective to broadly examine McClain’s legacy in honor of the 20th Anniversary of his tragic passing. The exhibit was crowdfunded via the Arts and Education Council’s stARTup-StL Crowdfunding platform and organized by the Nate McClain Gallery in association with over twenty private collectors from the St. Louis area, Kansas City, Charleston S.C., Portland, Chicago, and New York City.

Painting the Town
Painting the Town

“This rare event celebrates the life of our dear friend and encourages rediscovery by viewing his works up close and in person, not online,” said Kristopher Barks, curator of the digital Nate McClain Gallery. “Nate was my best friend since preschool and his sudden passing shocked everyone who knew him. For the past twenty years, his loyal friends and family have kept his memory alive thru his online gallery and even saved one of his 16-foot murals from demolition. These passionate fans made this exhibit possible so a wider audience can share in Nate’s legacy.”

Self Portrait by Nate McClain
Self Portrait by Nate McClain

Painting The Town: Legacy of Nate McClain opening reception is Friday, September 8th at 7 p.m. followed by an exhibition on Saturday, September 9th from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Reception and exhibit are free and open to the public at St. Louis ArtWorks, 5959 Delmar.

Article by Kristopher Barks, Curator

Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park

Frank Lloyd Wright was an American visionary. He was an architect but also an interior designer, writer and educator. Wright, who designed more than 1,000 structures in his 7-decade career, created structures and living spaces that were in harmony with the surrounding environment and with the humanity that would inhabit the spaces. He was instrumental in creating whole new movements in architecture and his designs were for spaces as varied as churches, office buildings, museums, skyscrapers and homes. He was a phenomenally busy man.

Russell William Morland Kraus was also a very busy and driven man. Kraus, who was trained at Washington University and the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, had worked in a supervisory capacity for WPA art projects in the 1930s. Kraus had also served with the Army Engineers Map Office during World War II, and, after the war, he began to search for a large suburban site where he could build a new house and enjoy the St. Louis countryside.

IMG_9283Kraus read about a house Wright had built for a middle-income client near Washington D.C. and decided to contact the architect, whom he greatly admired, with a proposal that he design a home in the Usonian style for him. Wright was, at the time, working on his late-life masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and was, in addition to being considered extremely eccentric, quite famous and busy trying to complete the many ideas and projects he was attempting to finish in the time he had left. Perhaps Wright’s eccentricity, and his desire to bring his design concepts to a wider audience, worked to Kraus’ advantage.

IMG_9284Though Wright had designed and built homes for the fabulously well-to-do, including Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park, he had developed a design theme he called the Usonian home back in the 1930s. The Usonian home was modest in size but, as with all of Wright’s designs, built in harmony with nature. It also incorporated well-planned “work areas” for kitchen, laundry and other chores, a highly accessible dining area and a living space that sometimes comprised up to half of the home’s floor space.  He was also very interested in these living spaces having uniquely American stylings, departing from the high-ceilinged boxes of Victorian or other European designs.

Wright’s designs, for public spaces, Prairie style homes and Usonian homes were guided by sharp angles and low profiles, the use of natural wood and stone and, in the case of Fallingwater, the incorporation of a waterfall into the house itself. Angled bricks and corners that met at 60 and 120 degree angles confounded many contractors but, once completed, gave a Wright-designed home a look that is instantly recognizable. Often, in order to achieve the total immersion of design he wanted, Wright would design not only the house but the furniture and glass work and carpeting; he would even hand pick the vases and artwork that would be allowed in the home.

IMG_9280Wright asked for and received a “wish list” from Russell and Ruth Goetz Kraus, detailing what they did and did not want in their home. The phenomenally busy, but also phenomenally productive, Wright returned a design built on the idea of intersecting parallelograms which are used throughout the house, furniture and even flooring.

The wood that Wright chose for the home was also a problem.  Tidewater red cypress was extremely difficult to find and was available from only a very few suppliers in a couple of southern states. So difficult was the wood to find that the initiation of building was delayed and then stopped later until new supplies could be found.

IMG_9306The construction took over four years and the cost was far over what was expected.  Problems with bricks, copper and wood were encountered, and adjacent properties needed to be purchased to prevent the construction of other buildings that would have, to the Kraus point of view, detracted from the masterpiece of living style they were creating.

The ordeal of building the home often was nearly too much, but the home was finished, even after Wright’s death in 1959, and was the home for the couple for 32 years. Ruth passed away in 1992 and Russell sought to sell the home. After three decades of living, the home needed work, however, and a buyer seemed elusive. The home was certainly worth saving and to that end a conservancy was created. Over the next several years the board worked to raise the money, over $2 million, to buy and restore the home and surrounding property.

IMG_9285In 2001, the group had completed its work and opened the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park. The property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is open year-round for guided tours by appointment. The home is located at 120 North Ballas Road and tours can be arranged by calling 314-822-8359 or by visiting www.ebsworthpark.org.

Saving the Environment One Classroom at a Time

While visiting the St. Louis area, a teacher from Mississippi happened upon the St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Center and found dozens of newly donated beakers, glass test tubes and other classroom laboratory equipment. The teacher told founding Executive Director Susan Blandford “if it wasn’t for your program we wouldn’t have Science class, because all of the materials have to come out of my pocket.”

Many of us have heard stories about teachers who are scrambling to find inexpensive school supplies and materials for art projects. At one point in our lives, each of us has likely contributed egg cartons, milk jugs, buttons or other household castaways to a neighborhood school for use in an art class. With tiny supply budgets and limited resources, teachers have spent decades finding and working with recycled materials in their classrooms.

The St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Center is a virtual wonderland for creative minds. Everything is donated by the general public or by local industries, providing 20,000 pounds of materials each year. The Center’s mission is to keep reusable items out of landfills and provide them to children and classrooms that desperately need them. When asked where all of these donations come from, Susan advises, “word of mouth seems to propel a lot of the donated goods, with a lot of people just walking in and dropping things off.” Pointing to several large stacks of multi-colored straw hats, Susan remarked that they had received an entire tractor trailer load of them from a donor.

IMG_9435A lifelong educator and mother of three, Susan founded the St. Louis Teachers’ Recycle Center in 1992 while still working as a full time teacher. Years earlier she traveled to Italy to study the Reggio Emilia Approach, a philosophy of early childhood education that leans heavily on the arts, and is paired with plenty of structured and unstructured play time. Children are allowed to explore, experiment and express their feelings through play and are active participants in the direction of their learning process.

Eager to learn more about the Reggio Emilia Approach, Susan then attended another conference in Boston and, through an enrollment mishap, ended up in a class on “Recycling.” The class was led by Dr. Walter Drew, the founding Executive Director of the Boston Public School’s Recycle Center. “From there I was sold,” says Susan. “Teacher’s spend so much of their own money on their stuff. I’ve got teachers that come to me and say ‘if it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t have blocks in our kindergarten classroom, because we can’t afford them!”

IMG_9443The vast amount of donated inventory crammed into the small store front is overwhelming. There are garbage cans filled with wine corks and magic markers, large bins of buttons, shelves of trophies, shoe boxes, scrap fabric, empty jugs, wood blocks of various shapes and sizes, and an incredible amount of paraphernalia from the medical supply industry. Many other items are indescribable and are a complete mystery, but provocative in every case.

Susan started the first Recycle Center in her garage, and then moved it to a Junior Achievement Building in her neighborhood where she was allowed to distribute materials for three months out of the year; June thru August. “It was a cinder block building with a tar roof, no windows and no air conditioning. I filled it in a month and I invited all of my teacher friends. It was my test market,” she confided.

IMG_9438For the next few years Susan moved the materials back into and out of storage for the summer months, until Dr. Sanford of Lindbergh School District invited her to take up residence in one of their schools. The Recycle Center continued to grow and moved another 17 times over the years, finally settling at their current stores in Chesterfield Mall and on Lemay Ferry in South County.

The organization has a traveling Recycle Center called “VanGo” that is currently filled with children’s books. Children are encouraged to go on board and choose a free book, in exchange for the promise that they will read the book that they take. VanGo can be found out and about in the community visiting fairs, festival and other family-friendly events in the region. The group also maintains three pods that are located at different area schools by keeping them filled with supplies from the Recycle Center. When asked if she has enough inventory to keep the stores, van and pods filled, Susan replied, “I have more than I can possibly tell you … we have a warehouse filled with donations.”

IMG_9420The store is open to the general public, and everything is FREE, with a small service fee of $1 per pound. For those who like to buy in bulk, Pound Passes in larger amounts can yield more poundage, for instance a $90 pass will gain you 125 pounds of materials. The smallest Pound Pass is $10 for 10 pounds.

A list of accepted items for donation can be found here.

Donations are only accepted during normal store hours. Since the stores are manned by volunteers, they are not open every day of the week. Visitors should consult store hours on the Center’s website at www.sltrc.com.

IMG_9446Susan Blandford is also the founding Executive Director of Play Your Art Out, an interactive, hands-on workshop and play space for children located in Chesterfield Mall. To learn more about Susan and her passion project, check out the article Play Your Art Out: “You just can’t be wrong in here.”

Chesterfield Mall

Lemay Ferry

Play Your Art Out: You just can’t be wrong in here

A shopping mall is probably the last place you’d expect to find a unique and creative outlet designed to engage kids. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Play Your Art Out, a “hands-on play experience” that benefits children, both physically and mentally.

After her work to get the St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Center up and running, (see the article Saving the Environment One Classroom at a Time,) Susan Blandford decided to further pursue her love of teaching children by opening Play Your Art Out in 2009. An ardent proponent of the Reggio Emilia Approach for Early Childhood Education, she believes that playtime is essential to nurturing creative young minds.

Susan explains, “the idea of the play studio isn’t about playing to make art, it’s playing to find the art of who you are. That’s a hard sell because people are used to just coming in and they want to be on their cell phone. That’s the first rule for parents … turn off and be with your kids.”

IMG_9459The play studio is located on the ground floor of Chesterfield Mall near Sears and the children’s playground. Money raised here is used to keep the Recycle Center afloat, and all materials used in the studio are obtained from the Recycle Center. The Recycle Center is how Susan got started in non-profit, but the play studio workshop is her passion project, asserting that “kids are amazing when they play.”

This is not a facility where parents are allowed to drop off their kids while they shop. Everything is structured around parent and child activity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent and child will be playing with each other, but all parties will be engaged for the duration of the visit. Susan advises, “I want parents to re-engage with their kids.”

Parents have as much to learn at these workshops as the kids do. “Even more,” says Susan, “because they are so afraid that their child is not going to be in an activity, and is doing everything perfectly, and getting into college …. and the kid is three!”

The play space is divided into several areas with the most notable, a carpeted area in the front room, containing neatly organized bins full of cubes, spools, tiles and shapes made from cardboard, foam, wood, plastic or any number of otherwise strange and unusual materials. Children are invited to play quietly in this area with any of the available materials and to make a creation which is then shared in a small exhibit, alongside those of the other participants.

“I think that’s where creativity starts is with children’s play, and when they lose that playful thing, it’s like they’re getting tested on everything that they do,” cautions Susan.

IMG_9462After a while the children move to the art studio where they are given paint and brushes. Susan tells the kids, “You’re gonna play with paint! I don’t want you to worry about painting a picture, just dance your brush on your paper.” She continues “We really want to get away from the fact that they think that they have to create something that somebody else likes.”

If painting is not appealing for the child, they have the option of working with other materials and media by using collage boards, hats, masks and decorating boxes. Susan points out that “We have to realize that we are training children that there’s only one answer, and that’s usually by filling in some little circle.”


Susan emphasises that there are no right or wrong ways to play or to create. Parents are discouraged from interjecting “helpful” comments to their children during playtime, leaving the child to control the direction of their experimentation.

Near the end of the art session the kids will be asked to “journal,” a chance for them to write down what they were thinking and feeling while they played. Some of the writings by these young authors are incredibly profound, with one little girl exclaiming, “You just can’t be wrong in here!”

Susan adds, “Then they partner with one other person and they do not get to speak, they just listen to their partner. They look them in the eyes and they listen to them, and after they listen they can drag them to their own pile and they get to listen to them, so that there’s a shared thing. Then we have them play cooperatively. It’s all to build this kind of inner realization that you have a voice in the room.”

IMG_9453Realizing the worth of this program, Whole Foods has stepped in to offer their “One Dime at a Time” promotion, which gives 10 cents to the program each time that a customer uses their own bag. Play Your Art Out will also be hosting Whole Foods Kids’ Club on the first Friday of each month starting in July, and it will be free to parents who go to Whole Foods and retrieve a “Play Pass.” The promotion starts in local stores on July 7.

After spending a particularly poignant bonding moment with her daughter, a parent once said to Susan, “We just came to the mall to buy a pair of shoes!,” to which Susan replied, “You can’t buy that (experience) out there,” continuing “I’m kind of an oxymoron to be in a mall because I’m all about reuse and don’t go buy something you don’t need.”

She continues, “There’s so much that happens in here at any given time that it’s really hard to put it into words for parents about what I do in here. You have to experience it! They’ll come and stand at the door and ask ‘what are we making here today?’ and I’ll say ‘I have no idea.’ They want a plan, but that’s not who we are. Once they’re in here and they see their kids engaged for a long time, and they see them playing with paint, I’ll be happy if I can get that parent to sit down and play with paint next to their child.”

IMG_9468When asked if she had any advice for today’s parents, Susan stresses “Let kids be young. When they’re having a meltdown at the mall it’s because you’ve overextended your stay, it’s not because they’re misbehaving. That’s all they can behave.”

Play sessions need to be reserved in advance, and for $15 a child can get three hours in the play studio. Susan suggests that “Parents don’t think their kids will want to stay that long, but they’re wrong. This mall is becoming more child friendly with the train, and I’m not the only place in here that offers children’s programs.” The workshop is recommended for birthday parties, field trips, scouts, homeschoolers, summer camps, or just any kid and parent who would like to spend a couple of hours playing.

For more information, check out the Play Your Art Out website at www.playyourartout.com.