Among a forest of easels in Room 220 of Windgate Art & Design, University of Arkansas – Fort Smith art students add shape, color and texture to paintings-in-progress, alternating between painting and observing the set-up in the center of the room they are attempting to express: three models seated around a circular table.
All students in the studio aspire to become professional artists, and they can look to one participant in the back of the classroom for an example of how to become one.
Puerto Rican street artist Ana Maria has participated in Don Lee’s figure painting class for the last four weeks as part of her artist-in-residency with The Unexpected and JUSTKIDS. While she’s been a mostly silent presence in the back of the classroom, Lee said students have benefited from having her in the class.
“They’ve been able to see the artistic process firsthand from an artist who has done it successfully,” Lee said. “What she’s done is put into practice what we’ve talked about in class, like form, color and content.”
She has also made an impact through a presentation she gave on her progression as an artist, which Lee said showed students “the passion and energy required for any creative endeavor.”
When Ana Maria came to Fort Smith for the residency, Lee offered her the chance to sit in on the class along with access to Windgate Art & Design’s facilities. Maria, who lacked a traditional artistic schooling and wanted to learn more about oil painting, accepted. She also wanted to “peek through the window” of styles different from her own.
“I have been inside the bubble of my style for so long that I feel a strong desire to learn different styles and techniques that you can only learn in school,” Ana Maria said. “My intention of changing the course of my painting was to encourage them to learn, but also to be free when making art. For me, it’s not just painting – it’s the only way I can say the things I have to say, or bring to life things that don’t exist.”
While students weren’t sure what to expect about having such an accomplished artist in the class, they quickly bonded with her as a fellow classmate. One of those classmates was Kiaya Luper of Fort Smith, an admirer of Ana Maria’s work. While in Fort Smith through the residency, Ana Maria also completed a mural downtown she began in the fall as part of The Unexpected, and Luper contacted her to see if she needed help finishing the painting.
“She’s an inspiration to me because of how similar our styles are,” Luper said. “I just get really excited about her murals, and I wanted to have the opportunity to help her.”
Ana Maria welcomed the help, and Luper helped paint sections of the bottom of the mural, an experience that allowed her to learn more about Ana Maria’s technique and the process of mural painting.
“It’s a foot in the door. I know what to expect now as far as planning out the design and putting it up there on the wall,” said Luper, who hopes to be a muralist after graduation. “She’s really down to earth, so it was very personal and enjoyable. It was almost like making a new friend.”
Lee added that Ana Maria’s residency, and the university’s collaboration with The Unexpected and JUSTKIDS, is “verification of a profound commitment to the visual arts for the city of Fort Smith.”
“The contribution of Ana Maria as an artist-in-residence to the UAFS Art Department, the figure painting class and students continues the positive collaboration between UAFS, The Unexpected and the community,” Lee said.