Art for all ages: Studio 598 in downtown Sylva offers on-going art classes for youth and adults

By Michael Beadle

Making a mess never looked so fun.

It’s Friday morning at Studio 598 in downtown Sylva, and art instructor Norma Smith is guiding several young students through a fresco workshop. These Jackson County home-schoolers range in age from 6 to 11. With paint brushes and a palette of colors, they dab and stroke and scrape and swish paint onto moistened wooden canvases. Over a few hours, maps of strange lands appear. Bright skies where the sun’s always willing to shine. A pasture where a mythical horned beast awaits. A path that leads to a dark secret.

The messier you get your hands, the more you realize these worlds become a part of you.

These are some of the discoveries awaiting both young ones and adults as Studio 598 continues its variety of community art classes throughout the year. Located upstairs from Hollifield Jewelers on Main Street in Sylva, Studio 598 opened in May with local art teachers offering workshops in painting, mosaic tile making, ceramics, papermaking, basket weaving and more.

On Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon, Smith’s workshop for home-schooled students incorporates art history and studio time, allowing young artists to learn about the range of how art was once created — from the Paleolithic cave paintings to Renaissance frescoes — before the students try their hand at these art forms.

Six-year-old Dallas lathers layers upon layers of paint colors, experimenting with various brushes and scraping tools to form a rich landscape that calls to mind a modern abstract painting. A foreground once forest green turns to wheat brown. The palms of both hands take on the colors of his canvas, and his eyes are deeply entranced in the dream of his work.

“When he does his artwork, he lives it,” Smith says, admiring Dallas’s transformation.

Meanwhile, his across-the-table neighbor, 8-year-old Julian Talley, is working on a map with each region a different color and ribbons of blue separating the regions. Tia Coppersmith, 9, is touching up a landscape that resembles the hunters and beasts in her primitive cave painting, which is taped up on the wall in front of her. Before painting in the fresco style, these students tried their hands at primitive drawings inspired by the Lascaux cave paintings of France.

“I still have a little grass to do,” she says. And somewhere in there, she wants to include some purple. Smith helps show her how to use a thick brush to fill in the color around the edges of the bull or antelope that has become the focal point of the painting.

Lukas Savage takes on a more modern subject — a skate park with a halfpipe and an orange boulder of a sun hanging over the scene.

The mothers of these young painters wait out in the lobby of the studio around a table where artwork will be displayed for an upcoming Art After Dark, a monthly downtown Sylva gallery stroll on the first Friday of each month.

Brenden Ormsby shows his mom, Tracy, his latest painting, delivering it to her gingerly as one might a freshly baked pie.

“Here’s mine,” he says. “It’s a map.”

Mom’s impressed.

“They made forts last week — they were really cool,” Tracy says.

Tonya Coppersmith, Tia’s mother, was glad to find a place locally where her daughter could continue to improve her talents.

“She’s always been artsy, and I’m not,” Coppersmith says. “She needed a place where she could increase her knowledge, and Norma’s real good with that.”

But isn’t there a fine line between encouraging young talent and pushing would-be prodigies too early? Some simply need the experience of creating while others need suggestions and questioning that challenges the student.

“She does that, but she’s so gentle,” Coppersmith says.

Donna Savage, whose youngest child is Lukas, has a love of painting as well, but it can be difficult trying to impart advice when each artist creates from a different perspective.

“There’s really no one right or wrong way to do art,” Savage says.

So what’s the best part about creating art?

“The unlimited possibilities,” Julian says at the end of class that includes a few cookies.

Though Smith is the director of Studio 598, she’s one of several instructors there. Others include Kristen Marie Harrison, a WCU senior in art education who teaches jewelry classes to upper elementary and middle school students, and Alysha McPherson, also a student at Western Carolina who specializes in ceramics and painting and teaches 4- and 5-year-olds on Saturday mornings.

Smith, who grew up in Winter Park, Fla., began teaching art back in high school and started up the first art classes at Highlands School in 1979 after summer vacations in Highlands. The curriculum at Highlands School ranged from kindergarten through 12th grade. For Smith, what started as a love of art grew into a lifelong joy in seeing others get excited about art.

“Seeing their work develop too is a huge thing,” Smith said.

She now teaches at Western Carolina University’s art department and recruits students from the art department and those training to become art teachers to gain hands-on experience at Studio 598.

“I like the idea of mentoring students in the field of art,” Smith said.

So far, it’s working out quite well for all those involved.

The goal for Smith is to provide a welcoming space where adults and young people can learn different forms of visual art and at the same time create a kind of dialogue between local artists and the community. Smith wants to open the studio space to working artists who, for a small fee, can rent a studio room to paint, draw or work in a visual art medium along with fellow artists.

Art serves all kinds of purposes, and for some it’s a form of therapy, so Studio 598 will also be hosting an art therapy class coming up this fall. Art therapist Keith Delancey will be teaching “Work the Metaphor” Nov. 3 as a way for people to discover their own inner expressions through art. Part of that discovery means making art more accessible to people from all walks of life and emphasizing the process rather than the product.

As one student recently told Smith, “I don’t care if my art is good. I just want to do this.”

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