Teens’ creativity soars in nonprofit’s art studio class

The Teen Studio program creates safe space, and 'really fantastic art'


After setting up tables for class, teenagers come to collect paints, markers, paper or brushes for their individual projects. Often, they stop to chat with Karl Poulson, an art teacher who has been teaching the Teen Studio at the Art Students League of Denver since 2011.

The students are relaxed, and that’s how Poulson, 29, likes to run the class. Instead of lecturing on different art forms, he is here more as someone to talk to if students need advice or guidance. The informal environment encourages students to open up, not just with their art, Poulson said, but as individuals free to talk about whatever they want.

“You’re able to find new materials you’ve never used before, you’re able to try something that you can totally fail at because you’re safe to,” Poulson said. “That’s what I crave so much as a young artist myself. The ability to be good at failure is something that’s really powerful.”

The Art Students League of Denver, 200 Grant St., is a nonprofit that offers a wide range of art classes for children, teens and adults. But Fridays are reserved for teen classes, said Leticia Salinas, program director at the ASLD. Teens may feel nervous or intimidated in adult art classes, and often spend more time helping younger kids in classes geared toward youth. Giving teens their own set time creates a safe space for creation, Salinas said.

Teen Studio is offered on Friday nights from 6-9 p.m. for teens ages 14-17. In January, the ASLD received a $10,000 grant from the Harvey Family Foundation for the Teen Studio. Before the grant, the nonprofit offered drop-in rates for the Friday class at $15. The Harvey Family grant enabled the ASLD to subsidize the cost, dropping the rate to $10. Scholarships are also available. The goal is to eventually make the class free for everyone, Salinas said.

The program has grown since Rachel Bayse, executive director of ASLD, first decided to offer Teen Studio. On peak days, 30 to 35 teens drop in for the program. Overall, the program serves about 900 teens from across the Front Range, Salinas said.

“It’s really thinking about how do we provide teens with quality art training, portfolio-building opportunities and really looking at what are those art classes that can go beyond what their school is offering,” Salinas said.

Theo Zender has been coming to the class for 3 1/2 years along with Tabitha Peña. The pair used to attend the same school, but after Zender transferred, going to the art class together allowed the friends to stay close.

For Zender, Poulson is part of what makes the class so special. “I wouldn’t be half the person I am without meeting Karl,” Zender said.

Both Zender and Peña agreed they look forward to the art class at the end of the week. The class also allowed them to experiment with new materials they wouldn’t have at home, Zender said.

“It’s a very supportive community,” Zender said. “This was such a good place for me to find myself in that and find my artistic self.”

“Having other people to talk to with new opinions and new ideas is really nice,” Peña added.

Poulson is a professional artist who works under the name Karl Orion. He grew up in Denver and attended classes at the ASLD starting at the age of 9. He then attended Denver School of the Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago. As a working artist, Poulson hopes that students can use him as a resource in their own creative ventures. But he said he also learns from the teens.

Hearing students talk about topics as wide-ranging as global politics, sexual orientation and technology, Poulson said his students are in the know of what’s going on in society.

“Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met are in this class,” he said. “Change is happening — I get to have a front row seat to it.”

A year and a half ago, Ashley “Z” Farrell began teaching the class along with Poulson. Ferrell helps students with more sculptural projects and 3D art. Poulson said that Ferrell has helped expand the class into more mixed media.

For Ferrell, joining the class has meant helping students expand their knowledge of art outside the two-dimensional space. But after working with Poulson and the students, she said she also witnesses the students creating their own community and safe space. It’s one of her favorite parts of the class.

“I enjoy helping them be more emotionally stable as teens,” she said. “With the safe space comes really fantastic art.”


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