All Classical Radio James Depreist

Reaching for the stars at the St. Clare Art Fair

As tight school budgets threaten to slash arts classes across Oregon, Rose Lifschutz and her students at the Portland school reveal the creative rewards of a healthy arts program.

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St. Clare School fifth Grader Ellis Rompola's artwork based on the story of The Polar Express.
St. Clare School fifth Grader Ellis Rompala’s artwork based on the story of The Polar Express.

Story by GABRIEL LUCICH
Photographs by JOE CANTRELL


“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” 

— Pablo Picasso

 One of the ways that healthy expression can be fostered in children is by using art and music programs in our school curriculums. With budgets cuts occurring regularly and statewide, programs considered superfluous (art, music, foreign language, physical education etc.) are often the first to go.

This reveals a frequently short-sighted approach to public and private education funding, especially since the creative skills developed in arts programs also help students better understand and utilize academic subjects.

Left: Rhythms of color by eighth grader Arden Sangster. Right: Abstract face by sixth grader Ingrid Webber.

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The recent Art Fair at the St. Clare School in Southwest Portland proves that schools can provide children with the best arts education available. Helmed by artist and teacher Rose Lifschutz, the St. Clare program seeks to foster the creative streak in all of the parish school’s students. Each class receives 90 minutes a week of close instruction in a variety of mediums. 


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Sometimes it feels like there is a dissonance between preconceptions about K-8 art and what Lifschutz is accomplishing at St. Clare. These are not refrigerator-magnet art for the home. The art is supported, practiced, peer-critiqued, and worthy of display in more ways than your average weeknight scrawling.  

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The St. Clare Art Fair, held at the end of the just-finished school year, featured art from every student skill level. The second floor of the school was floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall art, and some of those walls were exceedingly long. Much of the fair was organized by grade; some by style, others by medium, studied artist or subject.  

St. Clare art program leader Rose Lifschutz with (from left) students Lucille 8, Nora 8, Siena 8, and Quinn, 7.

Lifschutz radiates creative energy, some of the most virally contagious good vibes anyone could experience. An alum of St. Clare, she attended California College of the Arts as an undergraduate, then earned her master’s degree in art education from Savannah College of Art and Design. She then brought her considerable experience to bear in the Bay Area, and eventually back home to Portland. 

This marks her fifth year of teaching at St. Clare, and the arts program has flourished under her guidance.  

“I try to give them as many opportunities to see themselves, to see their artistry, to see what they are capable of, and really, they get tired of me saying how good it is,” said Lifschutz. “I would never do it just because I felt obligated to. It is one reason that I love my job, because I just get so excited about their work. I get so inspired by them as an artist in seeing what they can create, come up with and just what is interesting to them.” 

Lifschultz walked down the main hall, explaining the art: 

“So, this is the way we organize the art fair. With the kindergarten, it is all displayed down by their classroom, and it is grouped by students. One student here, then another, then everybody else. We group by student and not by grade. It encourages people to move around. The kids have a ton of fun looking up the artwork once it is all up.” 

She stopped the tour in front of another area of the hall:

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“Here is a neighborhood drawing. This lesson is based on the (author and painter) Faith Ringgold’s book, Tar Beach, where the main character, Cassie, flies above her neighborhood (with the aid of the stars above). We read the book, then talk about what a bird’s-eye view is, and they think about their neighborhood and how much or how little they want to show, drawn from that perspective. Some will draw the houses with pitched roofs, some draw them very flat. Some will draw winding roads crisscrossing everywhere. This is one of those lessons where I give them just the slightest bit of guidance. We do a visualization and then they just take off with it.” 

Left: A spooky scene by third grader Beckett Reichman. Right: Second grader Lucille Ahrendt’s superpower.

Left: Bright portrait by kindergartner Lucy Wonder. Right: Stylized face by sixth grader Maya Jones.

Left: Announcing the art fair, with examples. Right: Collage by Elliot Wegner and Sam O’Mahony makes room for LeBron.

Lifschutz’s tour encompassed everything the students created this school year, from complex studies in origami – which, she said, the fifth-grade kids “universally love” – to Christmastime pastel drawings of the Polar Express, and black and white photography. A common thread woven through the program is studying the work of established artists.  

Some particularly striking images were created in the style of Canadian artist Sandra Silberzweig. The colorful, near-psychedelic imagery of these artist-inspired pieces was almost gallery caliber and created by fourth graders. Intricately detailed, cubist-leaning self-portraits with a nod to Latino folk art are Silberzweig’s calling card, and the kids truly did justice to her work. 

Another favorite wall at the fair is the Buddy Monster Project. This was developed to have fifth graders take on a role as mentors to the kindergarten class.  

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A wall of shadowy figures at the St. Clare Art Fair.
A wall of shadowy figures at the St. Clare Art Fair.

“The fifth graders are paired up with kindergarten buddies every year, and they take care of them,” Lifschutz explained. “They look after them, give them birthday presents, and the kindergartners do the same in return. With the buddy monsters, we talk about drawing monsters. I read monster stories to the kindergartners, then they draw the outline of their own monster with a sharpie marker, and the fifth graders color them in. So, it’s kindergarten imagination with fifth grade coloring skills. All the kids get really excited.”  

Principal Chris Harris is also extremely proud of the burgeoning artists at St. Clare.  

“We do have one of the more unique art programs in the archdiocese,” he explained. “Older kids get one, 90-minute block per week and for the younger students, it is broken up into two smaller pieces. To be able to have the instructional time with the art has been a wonderful thing for our program. Every school is a little different. We are able to include this incredible instruction at a time when other schools are cutting costs.” 

Students engage in self-expression in a way that leads to greater confidence. They can identify the talent in each other and as a group. The arts are so important beyond a student’s individual talent level. It allows them to be ‘seen,’ in a way that they might now be able to, away from the arts, and it gives them a real opportunity to shine.” 

Art from nature: Second grader Kit Griffith's colorful butterfly.
Art from nature: Second grader Kit Griffith’s colorful butterfly.

Parents are equally enthusiastic about the program and the art their children are creating.  

“St. Clare’s art program is super inclusive, ensuring that every student knows that they are an artist.” Jen Rorabaugh, mother of Reese, an eleven-year-old fifth grader, said in an email.

“Reese’s confidence grew as she explored different mediums and techniques, and her art was a way for her to explore and express her feelings as she adjusted to a new school this year. Art has always been an outlet for Reese, and we’re really grateful for the space Ms. Lifschutz created for Reese to explore and grow and try new things. Reese came home excited to talk about the projects and artists they were learning about and imitating, especially the Camille Walala painting that they did as a class, and also as individuals. I can’t wait to frame that painting and hang it on the wall in our house and watch her heart swell with pride at seeing her art on the walls.” 

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Teachers cannot ordinarily tailor programs to suit each student, but in the case of Lifschutz’s art classes, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Each young artist is developing their voice and signature style, even with vastly different personal cues taken from the source materials the classes study.  

Three separate groups of students came in to talk, a few from grade two, some from fifth, and the final from seventh, none of them at all timid about showing off their art. 

Second grader Nora displays her entire portfolio of artworks about her own world.
Second grader Nora displays her entire portfolio of artworks about her own world.

Nora, 8, tried to steal the show by presenting her entire art portfolio. It was mostly imaginative scenes from ‘everyday life’ in Nora’s world. Clearly destined for a career in public speaking, she walked through every scene in her art journal. Cheerleading, the church at St. Clare, basketball games, karate practice, Nora covered them all, but something extra was included in every scene. 

“I have one little detail that I put in every page, a pencil. It is hidden in every page,” she said. 

Like Waldo from the Where’s Waldo? books, it was stashed away in the margins, or hidden in the hand of one of her characters. Why a pencil? It may have to remain one of life’s unanswered questions. In some of the scenes an occasional stylized alien would pop into frame. A constant in her work is the inclusion of everyone in her class. The images were crowded with her friends. 

The students have a limited amount of time to devote to their sketchbook every week.  

Quinn Brown, 7, took a different approach from Nora’s. He took six months to color in one image that initially began as a selfie. Methodical and meticulous in his approach, he wanted every detail to work for this one page. The result was as you would expect from all that effort. Explosions of color and shape, the finished drawing was abstract, simultaneously resembling something birdlike and human. Equal parts fever dream and youthful imagination.  

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The fifth graders who spoke — Ellis Rompala, 11; Edie Villareal, 10; and Reese Rorabaugh, 11 — were immensely proud of their Polar Express paintings, made using chalk pastels. Every train followed the same lines on the paper, but all details were left up to the artist. Some trains were studies in shading and color-blending; some were far more realistic and included details such as wild-grown Christmas trees, resplendent with colored lights. Some were more geometric, pulling inspiration from the postmodern art that Lifschutz introduced to the class. 

It was also easy to see the artistic development of the kids with several years of the art program under their belts. 

Left: Seventh grader Anna Coffield, who is a dancer as well as a visual artist, holds one of her works. Right: Seventh grader Grant Keller, who in addition to visual art is deeply immersed in music, leans over some of his artwork.

Grant Keller, 13, a seventh-grade student, has worked hard at his musicianship, as St. Clare’s also houses a thriving music program. When Lifschutz introduced him, he had a guitar drawn on his arm in red ink. The first piece he showed us in his sketchbook was a painting of his favorite guitar pedal, which at home, is paired with his brother’s Martin acoustic and Fender Stratocaster guitars. Grant plays music for Mass, but his spare time is spent listening to and playing ’90s Grunge, mainly Pearl Jam. 

Anna Coffield, 12 and also in the seventh grade, is a multi-talented artist as well: She loves the visual arts, but also dances en pointe (ballet) in school productions, the most recent being The Nutcracker.  

For all her knowledge and talents, Lifschutz is the first person to say that she does not know everything – and also how easy it is to learn a skill when you must teach it. 

“I am so blessed to be able to use my creativity to teach, and to show their work and to honor it, to help them collaborate,” she said. “Also, if I ever want to learn about something, I teach it. If I want to learn about watercolor, I teach watercolor. The best way to learn about something is to do it, it is beautiful. It is a challenge, especially if I know nothing about it, but that is how we learn.

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Teacher Rose Lifschutz tours the art fair with a couple of students and reporter Gabriel Lucich.
Teacher Rose Lifschutz tours the art fair with students and reporter Gabriel Lucich.

“I don’t underestimate them. As artists, it is very, very rare that I throw something at them and think, ‘That was a little too far, too much of a challenge.’ That has only happened three times in my five years at the school. Most of the time, they meet the challenge, and we go from there; we see how much we can do. I know I have said this over and over again today, but it is so inspiring to work with these people who are up for any creative challenge. They do not know their limits.”   

One could be overwhelmed by the magnitude and the minutiae of the arts fair: Trying to cover each theme or medium, you certainly would be. Trying to write a story that does justice to this program is nearly impossible, as trying to adequately describe any one piece of art in a museum or gallery should take a few hundred words, and here we are faced with thousands of individual pieces.  

There is no way of categorizing or critiquing the work of these young artists, nor would anyone want or choose to. Suffice to say that St. Clare’s is giving the absolute best it can to make sure that these kids have the most well-rounded education possible. They have built a tight community, teaching the students that teamwork and encouragement are vital skills for vibrant futures. 

When we give children an environment where they are not just allowed to, but actively encouraged to flourish, that is exactly what happens.  

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Gabriel Lucich is a freelance journalist, art and antique dealer, and a full-time pre-law student at Lewis & Clark College. Keeping his journalism interests separate from his coursework and eventual career as an attorney is extremely important, so he prefers to write about the arts. Journalism is a newer, but foundational love of his, as he believes that it strengthens all other writing skills. When not buried in his books or on his computer, you can find him out in nature, usually solo, on a lake or a river, with a yellow legal pad close by.

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One Response

  1. Great article, Gabe! I liked how you highlighted so many individual artists in this piece. Their work is amazing! In addition to supporting the school’s great program, this piece supports the development of individual emerging artists. Very cool!

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