A painting of a tree stretches up the lime-green wall of Unicoi Art Studio; its swirling branches curl into tendrils. Clay dolls of Darth Vader, the Cat in the Hat and Hello Kitty congregate on a shelf. Nora Stewart, the studio’s founder, flits across the room, assembling supplies for the next project and tying paint-spattered smocks around her young students’ waists. In the corner her four-month-old son sleeps peacefully in his stroller, oblivious to the commotion around him.
The students, ages four and five, are preparing to draw a picture of a horse-drawn carriage crossing a bridge. Stewart, 39, helps each child outline the shape of the bridge using a plastic grid ruler and a protractor.
“Now we’re going to make the sky!” Stewart announces to the class. “It’s not going to be a blue sky. It’s going to be an interesting sky, because we like to do things a little bit different.”
Stewart’s passion for art was instilled at a young age. Her parents would throw extravagant, themed birthday parties, turned school reports into art projects and built a haunted house in their basement every Halloween.
After earning her degree in art education, Stewart began teaching kindergarten at Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park. Her students’ parents loved her class projects and urged her to start an after school program so she began teaching classes in her apartment. Stewart soon had so many students that she needed to move to a commercial space.
Now, 15 years later, she has a staff of six teachers, 155 students, and teaches classes at 10 Chicago Elementary Schools. Her students range from ages three to 13.
“I like how their little faces glow, and the appreciation they show when you’re doing a project with them that they think is really fun,” Stewart says. “I feel like I’m leading them through a carnival sometimes.”
Stewart believes early experimentation with art can help children be successful in all aspects of life.
“When they’re older, if they’re able to develop their creative side, I feel like that will help them in anything they choose to do in life,” says Stewart. “For instance, if they choose to be a lawyer or a doctor, they’ll think of more possibilities for solutions to a problem if they’re able to tap into the right side of their brain.”
The children pound the paper in the front of them, creating a sky with soft, squishy sponges. They take turns using orange, pink, and blue watercolor paint.
“Mine is going to be a sunset!” declares a little girl in a sparkly pink tutu.
“None of you guys are getting paint on the bridge! I can’t believe it!” Stewart exclaims.
Stewart said her students’ constant progress is inspiring.
“I love to see what kids are able to do with the creative freedom they get in the painting class,” Stewart said. “We give three years olds the same projects we give five, six and seven year olds, and they’re able to do it, if they’re given one step at a time; I just find it fascinating to see how kids develop over time.”
Students at Unicoi not only have the opportunity to paint, draw and collage, but also make playful crafts like sculpting clay dolls and baking a Valentine’s Day “cake” out of sand, acrylic and glue.
“The whole basis of my studio is about variety,” Stewart said. “They get a lot of exposure, not just to basic art materials, but to new and interesting things that I might find at a hardware store.”
As Parents arrive to pick up their children they marvel at the students’ masterpieces. One final product depicts a black carriage, a little face framed by curtains peeping out from its window, crossing an arch bridge against the backdrop of a dappled Easter egg sky.
Stewart suggests parents set up a craft area for their kids to keep the creativity going at home. Having a space the children can explore with stickers or markers will keep them from getting bored and migrating toward toys or TV. She also recommends turning school assignments into art projects whenever possible.
“I think the kids realize and appreciate the value of art and enjoy making something from scratch.”
Unicoi Art Studio is located at 2059 W Belmont Avenue. Hours: Mon-Fri 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sat 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., Sun Closed