Painter Tommy Van Auken is passionate about creating a place where self-described “art nerds” feel like they belong.
“We designed Art League to be the program I wish I could have participated in in high school,” says Van Auken, who has been a longtime instructor at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. “I was this weird kid who was really into drawing when no one else was. I didn’t feel like I had a place to go.”
Van Auken is a constant presence at VisArts. Each session, he teaches up to five drawing and painting classes. Because he’s not only a talented artist, recognized for his depiction of the human figure, but also a patient teacher, his classes fill quickly.
Though Van Auken teaches primarily adult classes, he appreciated the fact that there were frequently at least one or two high school students on his class roster. As a policy, VisArts allows teens aged 16 to 18 to enroll in adult classes with the permission of their parents and the instructor.
“These high school students were often extremely talented, and they were taking adult classes because they were serious about art,” says Van Auken.
Van Auken went to VisArts’ director of youth education, Dean Whitbeck, and proposed starting a new program—something that extended beyond VisArts’ typical youth education offerings and prepared high school students for both applying to art school and launching a career as a professional artist.
“We have a lot of really excellent high school art programs in Richmond,” says Van Auken. “And at VisArts we’ve got an outstanding facility and a faculty of working professional artists, which gives us the potential to offer a really strong program.”
Art League offers teens aged 14 to 18 a series of art courses that can be taken in sequence. The curriculum is designed to expose students to everything from drawing and painting to ceramics and metalsmithing. Van Auken discourages high school students from specializing; it’s common for students to discover strengths in mediums they’ve never even considered.
“Art League is a great bridge between students’ high school art classes and a college-level art program,” says Whitbeck. “We’re teaching students how to work in new mediums and also how to be creative thinkers.”
A student who takes an Art League class each session can make it through the entire sequence in one year. At that point, he or she can choose to repeat the sequence. Van Auken is enthusiastic about what students are learning—figure drawing, for instance, is hard to get in high school but a requirement of the portfolios students must submit with their art school applications. Ginny Benton teaches a similarly hard-to-find silver casting class.
Van Auken’s goal is for each Art League student to leave the program with a comprehensive portfolio of work. His bigger goal, however, is for students to recognize that they’ve found a community of like-minded people who accept each other for who they are.
“I feel like I had to wait until I was in art school to be surrounded by people who understood me,” said Van Auken. “If you’re the kid in your school who can draw really well, then come here and be with other students who are interested in art.”