I have wanted to start a new series on the blog for ages. About two years ago, I decided that I needed to become an art teacher. It just felt like the right next step in my creative journey. Having no background in teaching, other than a few classes on early childhood education in college, I relied on other art-teacher bloggers for inspiration, wisdom, and guidance.
One of the first blogs I fell in love with was Purple Twig, which is actually a brick-and-mortar art studio in L.A. Owned and run by the very talented and creative Samara Caughey, Purple Twig is the kind of place I dreamt about when I was a kid. A big, wide table in the middle of a light-filled room with beautiful, inspiring art all around. Samara has such a magical way with materials, she can even turn socks into donuts! (I’m not kidding, you have to scroll down for this one.)
I am forever inspired by all the cool things Samara does with her art students. I literally drool when scrolling her Instagram. It feeds my soul!
So here we go, my first Art Teacher Interview with the imaginative and original Samara Caughey…
Q: Samara, I am so happy to finally ask you all of these questions that have been percolating in my brain. But let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your family and where you live.
A: I live in a small house in the North East neighborhood of Los Angeles. We were lucky enough to get a house with some land in the hills overlooking Highland Park. On that land we have fruit trees, lemon, avocado, pomegranate, apricot and orange along with arid plants from mexico and Australia, which makes for a wild little garden.
I live in this house with my husband, who is an incredible painter and teaches at Otis College of Art, my daughter, Ada, who is 10 and is incredibly talented physically: gymnastics, dance, climbing trees, you name, but alas won’t take a class in any of these things. She prefers Shakespeare and belongs to a young Shakespearian troupe here in Los Angeles. My son, Gus, is 6 and his talent is for disguise. It could be a plumber, a female real estate agent, a pirate, a modern dancer and I even heard him say “ I’d like to dress like a soldier in the French revolution.” “ As opposed to the American revolution?” was my response.
Q: Wow! Your garden sounds like heaven! And you are clearly raising incredibly creative kids. I’m laughing at your daughter who is good at everything yet won’t take classes. Do I detect some stubbornness? I have one like that, too. I love how you let them follow their passions. Do they gravitate towards making art now that they are getting older? Do you have an “art area” in your home, or do you keep most of that at your studio?
A: I don’t have an art area in our home. It’s just too small. I do have a table on our deck outside that if they want to make potions or do some painting then it can be done there but most of my kids art making is done at the studio. They both take classes with me and to be honest I sometime create the art classes around their interests assuming that if they are interested than other kids might be too. That’s how I came up with the Potions and Spells class that I am teaching right now. We make candles, soaps, do dying of fabrics and of course make up potions and do spells that I found in an old Gypsy book. My kids don’t necessarily gravitate towards making art but they do gravitate towards figuring out how to make something work or make something that might be needed in their playing. I am very proud of them for that kind of problem solving and creative thinking.
Q: I hope your kids realize how lucky they are to have a mom that helps them explore their emerging interests! What a gift you are giving them by letting them figure things out on their own. Tell us about your studio, Purple Twig. When and how did you begin?
A: I opened Purple Twig five years ago October 5th. I first started traveling to client’s houses to teach art classes for kids, which was difficult. The boundaries were not clear when it came to discipline or even wrangling the kids could be challenging. It’s difficult to compete with huge play structures or fairy princess houses. That didn’t last very long, Maybe a year. When I decided to settle into a brick and mortar spot I had already had my identity and teaching philosophy well grounded, as well as, a website and a bit of internet presence. But I knew nothing of business and how to run one. Someone gave me a great piece of advice. “Find a really good accountant” and I did. He was so integral to opening up a spot, helping with all those questions of a business license and taxes and insurance and book-keeping.
Q: Oh my gosh, that is great advice. I will be using that some day if I ever open my own brick-and-mortar. Thank you for passing that along! Can you tell us a little bit about your background in art and teaching?
A: I have a BFA from the School of the art institute of Chicago and an MFA from USC here in Los Angeles. An art career as a sculptor was my tract. I had a studio and worked hard for years to get a gallery. Unfortunately I think after having my first child I became disillusioned with the Art world. It just wasn’t fulfilling for me. When my 2nd solo show with my Los Angeles gallery was over, I broke off that relationship and looked elsewhere to fulfill my art fix. All the while I was teaching art to kids at The Armory Center for the Arts (which is a non-profit art institution in Pasadena. California). Since I was young I had been interested in child development just being curious about human life, so I had read Piaget and some of John Dewey’s ideas of education. After a lot of thinking and talking and finally feeling like I had finished my time at the Armory Center for the Arts, I decided to look for a storefront of my own.
Q: You have such a rich background in fine arts, being a sculptor is so cool! I am a huge fan of the work you do with the children at Purple Twig, and I especially am drawn to all that you do with clay. Now I know why! Do you have a favorite medium to use with the kids? And also, is there a certain age that you love to teach?
A: Since my background is in sculpture I tend to create sculpture project with the kids, whether it be paper mache, ceramics, plaster or building with wood or recycled materials, but I also love print making, collaging and making books with them. I so enjoy each stage of child development and creating works that are age appropriate for each of these stages. I love teaching 2 year olds for different reasons than teaching ages 8 or 9. But my forte really is ages 2-4, creating process oriented projects that are really about the potential in the materials.
Q: I love that. Process art is where it’s at! I’d love to get a glimpse into a typical class at Purple Twig. How do you begin class, how do you set up and teach the project for the day?
A: Setting up for a class and how to present the materials is an important part of teaching. For our classes ages 2-5 we divide the class up into thirds. The first part is a warm up where we offer different drawing materials each class, sometimes marker, oil pastels, chalk pastels or sometimes colored tape. This is a time to make what they want. To get out their own ideas, whether it be pre-writing mark making or drawing an underwater fire volcano. We usually keep these drawings and make a book out of them. We then read a story that has to do with our larger more in depth art project. This gets the kids inspired, but we never make the kids make what we want them too. We just offer the materials and the ideas, if the child has another idea of something to make with the materials offered we certainly are okay with that and will encourage them.
For the older kids we also have a warm up drawing using whatever medium they find most comfortable. They really like the colored pencils for some reason. The other day I offered drawing patterns on leaves with the chalk pens you recommended and they loved doing that and came up with all kinds of designs. With the older kids I give much more instruction so we then dive into making whatever it is we are making for the day. But again I offer the materials and the project idea but give them lots of freedom to change or add their own ideas to the project.
I feel my job as a teacher is to give them support and allowing them to succeed in making what they want to make. They don’t always know the possibilities in the materials but once I teach that to them, they come up with all kinds of other ways to expand the projects. I think that’s why I have themes to my classes. If the kids are interested in the theme they get excited about the projects. If a child likes dragons they will most likely like to make a dragon — whether it is drawing one, making one from clay, or collaging one together.
Q: Oh I love how you divide your classes! What a great idea. And I must say one of my favorite parts about visiting your website is reading the names of your classes. You come up with the best themes (I might have copied a few for art camp last summer…just saying). Do you have any advice on how you handle the child that is not interested in your art project of the day?
A: I haven’t had one of those kids in a long time, but I never make them do anything if they don’t want to. We have a story area with books and pillows in the studio so if they need to take a break or if they would rather read that is fine with me. It’s important to me that the kids are not making art for me or for their parents but for themselves. They usually come back after 5 or 10 minutes ready to engage with the materials again. When I have kids that are really silly I actually appreciate it. If I engage with them in their falling off chairs or making gurgling sounds or whatever it may be I can then steer it back to the project. That way I still feel like I am in control. When I just reprimand the kids I feel like I am not in control of the situation and then I am just talking loud trying to get a bunch of giggling kids attention but if I am giggling with them as well I am a part of it and can control it.
Q: That is some really good advice, I love it. I think as parents we can learn from this as well. Children should be allowed to be honest about how they feel. And if they aren’t into it, don’t push. You seem to have a very full life of juggling kids and family (and gardening!), and teaching art. Since many of us are doing the same, I’d love to know if you have any good advice to make it work. Do you rely on help, on routines, on your husband? Do your kids come to the studio after school? Do you teach on the weekends, and if so…when do you get your downtime?
A: That’s funny “downtime”. Juggling is just what we do. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I just have to let things go, like the huge pile of laundry on my couch so that I can wake up and make cinnamon bread at 6:00 in the morning if I want to. I do rely on my husband a lot. He is incredibly thoughtful and helpful. We do equal parenting at our house and he does most of the cooking which leaves me time to work. My kids do come to class with me during the week sometimes. I also have two incredible teachers, one Jillian Luz, shown below leading a workshop at Kids Handmade, so I can pick up kids from school and go home to work, creating curriculum, testing a project or doing my bookkeeping (yuck).
Q: I agree, bookkeeping is totally yuck. I feel like I could talk with you for days and days, Samara. You are so interesting and your philosophies on parenting and teaching art have such great value. Thank you for sharing all of this with us! I have one last question: What is your next goal with work? I have gotten into the habit of writing down my goals and then taking baby steps towards them. I thought maybe if you wrote it down (and I published it) then we could all help you stick to it!
A: I haven’t thought much about a more long term goal with Purple Twig. I am so busy trying to run the business side of things and finding joy in the creating of curriculum and of teaching. But when I really search for the answer to that thoughtful question I would really love to create a book of art activities for ages 18 months through 11, articulating age appropriate explorations. A book that focuses on recycled and found materials.
Well I know for a fact I would LOVE to see you write a book! You not only have such a large vault of creative ideas, you also have so much wisdom to share. I definitely see a book in your future.
Thank you, Samara, for all of your thoughtful answers. I admire you very much for working hard to provide so many children with a safe place to explore their creativity. Your Purple Twig families must love you!
I hope you found this interview as interesting as I did. What else do you want to know? Leave some questions for Samara if it moves you. Also, follow her on Instagram — you won’t be sorry. She has one of the most inspiring feeds you will ever lay your eyes on.
Thanks for reading!!!