Coloring Outside the Lines: Teachers Open After-School Art Studio in Boise 

Jaimee Johnston (left) and Kam Walters (right), both public school teachers, started Syringa Art Studio partly in response to reduced school funding for the arts.

Lex Nelson

Jaimee Johnston (left) and Kam Walters (right), both public school teachers, started Syringa Art Studio partly in response to reduced school funding for the arts.

Finding Syringa Art Studio's underground location on Eighth Street in downtown Boise is like following the white rabbit. Colorful signs splashed with the company's floral logo lead aspiring artists across the street and into the hidden entrance of a building, then down a brick hallway and a flight of stairs. But emerging from the rabbit hole into the studio's cozy, yellow-walled space is worth the journey.

Syringa's founders Jaimee Johnston and Kam Walters are renegade instructors—by day, one is an art teacher in the West Ada School District and the other teaches English in the Boise School District; but after hours, they're at Syringa, a summer and after-school art program for kids and adults, free from the web of public school requirements and red tape. It only takes a few minutes of chatting with the couple to see that their love for art and the kids they teach is what makes the dichotomy meld.

click to enlarge LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson

"I love doing this, so spending all of that time [teaching], it's exciting," said Johnston, referring to the 11-hour days she puts in during the school year, a combination of time spent at Syringa and her school in West Ada. She added that she looks forward to the end of each weekend, thinking, "'Oh, I get to go teach!'"

Though the studio has only been open for two months—it kicked off with a First Thursday student art exhibition in May that drew in participants from across the state—its trigger came in April of 2017, when the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that student fees for classes (often used to pay for materials) went against the state constitution because they negated the guarantee of a free public education. According to Johnston, the decision hit art teachers hard.

"The policy change really affected the budgets that we had to work with," she said. "... And the district was really good at trying to match [the missing funds], but it was never quite where it was [before]."

click to enlarge LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson

Supplies became more difficult to purchase, and busing for after-school programs (where Syringa began, catering to nearly 60 students) and field trips became too expensive. The emphasis on STEM added another level of stress, as schools worked to push math and English into other disciplines, and some toyed with the idea of eliminating art classes entirely.

"The school that I just moved away from [in West Ada], every single year at the beginning of the year, the conversation came up and they always got so close to just cutting art completely," said Walters. "We skated by every year, but always the conversation was that the ISAT, the [Praxis] Core test, the standardized test was all just math and English. And so every year that I've taught, for four years now, I've just seen such a huge push toward math and English to the point where as an English teacher, I was being asked to teach math lessons in my class because our math scores were so low."

While English teachers worried about how to turn page numbers into practice problems, Johnston said her classes were being steered to overlap more and more with STEM lessons.

click to enlarge COURTESY SYRINGA ART STUDIO
  • Courtesy Syringa Art Studio

"The push with STEM was huge," she said, adding that although collaboration between the departments has positive effects, the way she ended up teaching "wasn't as creative, and we couldn't do the things that I thought would be really good for [the students]."

Syringa, which emphasizes individuality and freedom of expression, is the perfect complimentary space. The studio's entire staff of art teachers also works at public schools, including Casey Gurr of Eagle High School and Kristen Mouw of Mountain View High School, and was attracted to Syringa by word-of-mouth. The classes, offered to kids age 8 and older, are small and start with a group skill-building exercise, but always finish with self-guided projects which let the students choose how and even whether to incorporate what they just learned.

"I think it's good, giving them the chance to develop their skills and then the freedom to do what they want with them," Johnston said.

Some of the materials the kids work with have been donated to the studio, and many are leftovers gleaned from an art conference Johnston recently attended in Seattle. Once school starts up, Syringa will offer lessons in media like charcoal, watercolor, acrylic paint and chalk pastel on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as one-on-one art lessons and the option to rent its whimsical space for art parties. Adult classes on subjects like art journaling are also coming soon. During the summer, classes run during morning as well as afternoon hours.

Though Johnston and Walters enjoy the freedom of having their own teaching space, they said they're still fully dedicated to their day jobs in public education.

"We both love our jobs so much," Walters said. "That's why we wanted to teach here [at Syringa], because it's more of what we love about our jobs and less of the extra stuff."

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