Invest in your happiness, declares Old Northeast artist, Anna Ayres. For Anna – a watercolor, oil and acrylic painter – creating art answers the call to be happy.  Her work, “reflects what she sees in nature and doesn’t try to make it one thing or another, but just lets it be.”

“I have always been an artist,” says Anna. “From the moment I could hold a crayon, I have thoroughly enjoyed putting color to surface, although it hasn’t always been something that was encouraged or supported. It’s taken many years of yoga, meditation, and self-discovery to understand what it means to be an artist and to take action toward becoming one.”  Anna’s artwork can be found at www.artbyannaayres.com, as well as St. Pete ArtWorks, and other area venues.

Creative Clay’s Focus on the Arts

Anna Ayres with Cretive Clay member-artist Robin

Anna is equally adept in front of her own canvas as she is when teaching others to find their creative voice in front of theirs. For the past four years, she’s been teaching art at Creative Clay, a nonprofit arts center in downtown St. Pete which provides educational and vocational opportunities in the arts to people with physical, emotional, or developmental disabilities.

Anna wandered into Creative Clay during the downtown St. Pete Second Saturday ArtWalk and was instantly taken by the quality of their member-artists’ work and their passionate expression. “I saw more freedom and less inhibition in the artists’ work and that appealed to me,” says Anna.  When she learned that Creative Clay hired only professional artists as teachers, it planted a seed for her to explore teaching in a new way.

“Over the years, I have often considered getting my teaching certificate so I can teach in schools at the elementary or high school level. It made a lot of sense on paper, but never felt like quite the right fit for me,” says Anna.  “When I learned about Creative Clay, it was something I got excited about. Through my experiences creating, I know how therapeutic art can be. Art can offer us a break from the day-to-day stressors we all face. We get in the zone, we flow, we jam, we have fun. We get to feel a sense of peaceful calm and that’s where true joy lives.”

Anna worked as a substitute teacher for the organization’s Community Arts Multi-Disciplinary Studio Program for two years, and in 2017 she joined the staff of 15 contracted artist-teachers who provide all-day instruction two days per week. This an ideal time commitment for an artist who wants to work on her own projects and share artistry with others. Anna likes the wholesome energy of Creative Clay. “It’s like a breath of fresh air,” she says. “Creative Clay offers their member artists  a supportive community and as well as a gallery where artists can sell their work.”

The Creative Clay team: Joan Buckley, receptionist; Marcy Davidson, director of HR; Sean Kennedy, board chair; Kim Dohrman, CEO; and Emily Turnage, director of Community Arts

A native Vermonter, Anna took as many art classes in high school as they’d allow and in college at the University of Vermont. “In my junior year, I studied abroad in London where I took a Museums and Galleries class and fell in love with the artists of European history,” says Anna. “I saw for the first time, in living color, paintings I’d only seen in books. There in Europe, I stood before towering canvases of Monet’s cathedrals, Van Gogh’s roosters, Turner’s ships. I was in my candy shop! It was a hugely influential and inspiring four-month experience.”

Europe inspired her with a case of wanderlust. After finishing her last year of college back in Vermont, she traveled back to France, then to the Western United States; Costa Rica; Barbados; Nantucket; and Baja, Mexico. “I would go anywhere that seemed interesting and beautiful,” says Anna. “With each return to Vermont, I felt called to paint what I’d discovered. Each new destination offered an entirely new rhythm and essence in its people, its food, its landscape, its animals, its smells, its feels. It took me a long while to discover why it is that I paint, and to attribute importance to it. Over the years, my discovery is this: I paint because it brings me joy. It is as simple as that.”

Love the ’Burg

Creative Clay member-artist Brandy enjoys paint

An Old Northeast resident since August 2014, Anna felt called to the area after a brief visit.  “Eight months prior to my move, I stumbled on St. Pete because a friend and I came for vacation to visit his parents,” she says.  “I fell in love with not only the warm, sunny climate, but the creative energy here as well. I just had this feeling that I needed to be here. So I sold off much of what I owned, including all my art work, and moved to St Pete eight months later.  It was in August, the hottest month of the year. Friends and family in Vermont thought I was crazy.  It was simply an intuition I had about the area at that time, and the past four years of living here have proven my intuition accurate.”

Anna enjoys the artistic community and camaraderie in the Old Northeast because it is easy to go to events, talk to people, and network with other artists. She especially likes to participate in live art-making where the artist is creating the piece in front of the viewer. “This is becoming more popular and I would like to do more of it. This is a direction that art is going in.” She envisions places like hotels, St. Pete Saturday market, and HONNA porch parties as locations where the community can interact with the artist as they create their work, in much the same was as listening to musicians perform in public spaces.

Now in its 23rd year, Creative Clay began as the brainchild of two social workers who coordinated government-funded services for people with developmental disabilities. They saw a need for an art-specific activity that would give their clients an identity, a connection to the community, and the ability to share their work as outreach to other communities to further create and enhance inclusion.

Kim Dohrman, now executive director of Creative Clay, first started as a teacher 11 years ago.  Her passion for Creative Clay’s mission propelled her into many roles. She slowly assumed more administrative duties, which was not at all what she planned to do, but “I just love being in this arts community. My favorite part of my work now is sharing what makes this a great community and encouraging people to participate in whatever way they can.”

Kim explains that the role of Creative Clay is as much about career development as artistic expression.  The artists’ work is for sale in the Museum of Fine Arts gift shop through a partnership between Creative Clay, and in the Creative Clay gallery, which is open daily and during the Second Saturday ArtWalk. Member-artists’ work is also available for sale or lease through a unique program called Arts in Office.

Currently, Creative Clay artwork can be found in 10 different office venues in St. Pete.  Member artists and Creative Clay share proceeds from the sale or lease. But the reward is more than financial. Equally rewarding for member artists is the confidence they gain both through developing their identify as an artist  and the feeling of belonging to a community of artists.

At the present time, there are 45 member artists enrolled in the onsite arts program each week. Some have been coming for 20 years.  In addition to painting, member artists can participate in ceramics, fiber, and even a sewing circle creating needlepoint, a group founded by Creative Clay member artist Chris C. “The curriculum is diverse and guided by student desire,” says Kim. “We want the member artists’ true and authentic voice to come out in their work.”

Anna’s artwork

Creative Clay moved from Central Avenue, where they had been since 2004, to the Edge District in June 2017. The new location – 1846 1st Avenue South – has 1,0000 square feet of additional space to offer a rich variety of visual-arts related programs. In the summer, Creative Clay offers a summer camp program for students ages 6-12, as well as a summer studio for young artists ages 13-22. Creative Clay also reaches out into the community. Creative Care (Arts in Wellness) targets people in shelters, assisted living facilities, and healthcare settings. Member artists work alongside professional contracted artists to facilitate arts experiences for clients of organizations such as CASA and Goodwill Industries.

Creative Clay is funded in part by a Medicaid waiver, as well as donations and grants. Fundraising is a constant practice of any nonprofit.  Creative Clay responds to this challenge with a variety of programs and events, such as Creative Clay Art and Music Fest, a festival held in November which brings folk artists from around the region to create an inclusive arts event. Creative Thrift, a new program operated by Member Artists, allows anyone in the community to purchase art supplies donated to the organization. It’s a “pay what you can” store on the premises.

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