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Grace Raines, daughter of ArtBeast co-owner Blithe Raines, gets busy with a giant clump of clay. ArtBeast gives young kids access to an arts education that they normally wouldn’t receive at such a young age. Photo: William Leung

Midtown’s ArtBeast studio turns kids into creative little monsters

By Lovelle Harris

Originially published in Sacramento News & Review on 08.04.11

The scene here is pure energy in motion: A symphony of chirpy squeals rings out in an airy space as a parade of tiny hands smear red, yellow, purple and green paint down the once-pristine face of a white wall. In the background, quarter-sized metal discs jangle down a vertical xylophonic column of rebar pillars while a chorus of animated conversations flutters through the room like confetti shot through a circus cannon.

This explosion of frenetic force is the trademark of Midtown’s ArtBeast, a studio for children ages 6 and under where a dizzying array of art supplies and activities encourage kids to color outside of the lines, on the walls and even on themselves.

“ArtBeast is about creating the environment and sitting back and letting the kids drive their own experience,” says the studio’s co-founder, Bridget Alexander.

Alexander and her business partner, Blithe Raines, are former public-school teachers who, in January 2009, decided to take a gamble on the shaky California economy and open a studio for children.

The goal: to give kids access to the arts with a program with the same kind of flexibility and freedom as a gym membership.

“Kids need a place where they can go that is convenient,” Alexander explains. “You come, the environment’s always there, classes are happening throughout the week and you go to the ones you want.”

The vibe is chaotic but fun: Hordes of kids gallop around the room while others gleefully take to the “painting wall.” Meanwhile, some dig their fingers into the damp, vanilla-infused clay on one of the sensory tables as, nearby, the more gregarious tykes head outside under the ivy-covered patio to bang wildly on the pots, pans, empty soup cans and other assorted metallic objects on what Alexander proudly calls the “bang wall.”

The three-story art sanctuary is a labyrinthine network of spaces laid out to allow kids an unfettered artistic experience—from the open art studio to the theatrical play area. Here, kids are encouraged to explore freely, under the watchful eye of their parents.

“I find that a lot of the families are working families, [and] they don’t have a lot of time with their kids, so when they do have an opportunity to bring them, they kind of just want to be left alone to do their thing with their kid, which is just awesome,” Raines says.

While ArtBeast is an outlet where kids can explore their creativity, it isn’t all fun and games. The income generated by the studio goes directly to fund Alexander and Raines’ other passion—working as advocates, mentors and confidantes to young parents struggling with homelessness through their nonprofit Tubman House organization.

The two organizations, Alexander explains, are grounded by philosophies rooted in self-expression and self-empowerment.

“Through Tubman House, I became increasingly involved in working with children, and then, through having my own children, became interested in the importance of art in children’s lives,” Alexander says. “I’ve [also] worked with youth in crisis and have witnessed the transformative power of art.”

Now in its eighth year, Tubman House has served 150 young homeless parents and their children by providing them free housing, food, child-development classes, counseling services and college support as they make the transition from being homeless to becoming leaders in the lives of their children.

ArtBeast co-owners Bridget Alexander (left) and Blithe Raines. Photo: William Leung

“The thing that I love the most is that we employ former [Tubman House] residents and current residents here at ArtBeast, and having that relationship is the true bridge,” Raines says.

Down in the lower recesses of the art complex, the theatrical play area is home to a gallant castle, a spaceship fashioned out of recycled metal scraps, a puppet theater and a quirky collection of costumes and musical instruments.

And, it’s important to note, there’s not a Fisher Price play set to be found.

“We’re definitely embracing an aesthetic that’s a little more whimsical and homemade as opposed to things that are prefabricated. We don’t want it to look like McDonald’s Playland,” Alexander says with a laugh.

Certainly, the amusements here are anything but corporate. On the top floor, a large, sun-drenched dance studio plays host to several mini hula dancers as Don Ho’s classic song “Tiny Bubbles” floats through the air. The rustle of grass skirts mixes with giggles and toothy grins as the instructor leads the class of tiny undulating hips through the traditional Hawaiian symbolic dance.

The hula class is one of the studio’s new offerings, and judging by the big, beaming smiles and high-fives that mark the end of the class, it’s just one of the reasons why kids and parents alike come to revel in the “Beastie” experience.

For Alexander and Raines, ArtBeast is more than just a place where kids tap into their creativity; it’s a community as well.

“A lot of parents come in, and it’s like a hub where they’re all connecting and sharing ideas,” Raines says.

Accordingly, Alexander adds, the studio’s client base—about 300 visitors a week—has largely been formed by word of mouth via Facebook and Yelp posts, and its reach extends beyond the Midtown grid into the outer regions of Sacramento and beyond.

“The art materials are really high-quality, and for what you take away, in terms of their precious little art, is great,” says Kelly Amato, a Stockton resident who regularly visits Sacramento with her three small children just for the ArtBeast experience.

ArtBeast offers affordable drop-in rates, but many parents have also embraced the year contract, which works out to a $38-a-month membership fee.

“Preschool is so expensive right now,” says Tiffany Lillebo, parent to Mia, a precocious 4-year-old who enjoys the unlimited access to the studio that comes with the annual membership.

“I figured this is a lot like attending a school, but with many other benefits. So we are now annual members,” Lillebo adds. “It’s worth it for us, especially since we want to let her explore as much as she can artistically.”

As the studio’s creators look to the future, they are also toying with the idea of opening their doors to a slightly more grown-up group—the 7-and-older crowd.

“It’s not like we card people at the door, but there’re children that we’ve seen grow up over the last couple of years,” Alexander says. “That’s really rewarding, so we really want to maintain those relationships.”

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