K12 Gallery & TEJAS’ art revolution

By Karen Ander Francis


A creative revolution has been underway in Dayton’s urban landscape. Evidence is found in the plethora of public murals that surprise and delight folks all around the city: the 90-foot flood wall along the Great Miami River, Second Street Market, and the stories-high replicas of masters such Klimt, Degas, and Cézanne, which brighten otherwise drab warehouse buildings at the corner of Third and Sears. Within the past 20 years, K12 Gallery & TEJAS (Teen Education and Joint Adult Studio) artists, along with students and community volunteers, have joined forces to fuel an artistic revolution in a city, best known, upon first glance, for its engineering glories of the past.

This quiet makeover is founded on the principle that art can change lives. It is headquartered in K12’s gallery on Jefferson Street, a solid 19th century landmark that once housed a horse-drawn delivery business and then, most recently, a school supply. Outside, a nearly life-sized buffalo stands sentinel—you can’t miss it. On a typical Saturday morning, the cavernous space resounds with the creative cacophony of 100 people, pre-school through adult art-making in six to seven simultaneous studio classes.

“There’s a lot of neat things going on here,” remarks Jerri Stanard, founder and executive director of K12. She sits at a high round table in the break area and reflects on how far the artistic enterprise has come in two-plus decades.

“You know, my part is minimal in something like this, that you are able to capitalize on good, solid programming that inspires—above all—inspires people to love their brain,” she muses. Stanard taught art in the Dayton Public Schools for five years, during which she saw how the brain and hands working together to make art could actually help “restructure” some children’s brains starting to get lost to negative influences. One of the principles that guide K12 is the “positive affirmation of creative intelligence,” according to Stanard, whose own brain, hands, and heart still shape this revolution.


Arising from Stanard’s work at DPS is an award-winning program for the kinds of young people she saw every day whose bad choices made it impossible for them to succeed, and who end up being labeled as “bad kids.” Those masterwork replicas along Sears Street were among K12’s earliest efforts to help adolescents recover from bad choices by giving them a chance to use their brains and hands to create not only art but also an alternative reality in which success happens. In collaboration with the Montgomery County Juvenile Court, HAALO (Helping Adolescents Achieve Long-term Objectives) artists such as K12’s Scott Gibbs, who envisioned and led the Sears Street project “offer them an opportunity to explore their creative side and learn how to express themselves in more appropriate ways,” points out Brittini Long, community engagement coordinator for juvenile court.

She explains that many urban youth, like the children Stanard once taught, lack environments that are safe for making mistakes.

“They learn that it’s OK to make mistakes, if we learn from them and overcome them. The [K12 art] projects teach them about goal-setting, about seeing a project through to the finish… how to interact with their peers, even if maybe it’s not necessarily somebody that they agree with in some of their personal values,” the former probation officer notes.

The teens see in their public art proof that they can make a difference in their communities and impact their neighborhoods. Some feel, perhaps for the first time, the pride that accompanies positive accomplishment. Through art-making and its attendant life skills, these at-risk artists have lived the experience of redefining themselves and impacting their environment for the better.

“People drive by, honk, and say, ‘Thank you so much,’ ‘It looks great,’ ‘Thank you for what you are doing,’” Long reports. Such random affirmations from passersby, along with that of family, friends, neighbors, and officials at community dedication ceremonies, go a long way to building self-esteem, she adds. “They realize they have made a positive impact.”

HAALO is one of several art programs that Montgomery Court Juvenile Court contracts with K12. Gallery artists also work with teens who live at the Nicholas Residential Treatment Center, as well as those in the county’s locked detention facility. Once returned home after treatment or detention, many are referred to HAALO to ensure access to ongoing safe, life-enhancing support. For its contributions as a key community partner, Montgomery County Juvenile Court recently awarded K12 its Distinguished Service Award.

“Art is fancy… you know, artwork and museums, we have these all over the world, but art is also a human factor,” asserts Long, tearing up at her own words, “…and it opens opportunities for these kids where, you know they might not be able to tell me in words, but they can put it in paint, they can draw it.  K12 opens those avenues and opens those opportunities for these young people.”


Artist-in-residence Leesa Haapapuro recalls her early days with K12 when she would pile art supplies in a cart and roll it from a storefront gallery on Fifth Street to the Lutheran School of the Miami Valley (inside St. Paul’s Lutheran Church) near the foot of Wayne Avenue, just shy of the train trestle. There, she would teach art to primary and elementary students. Twenty years later, Haapapuro is among about a dozen K12 itinerant artists-in-residence who travel to local schools—only now, sans cart. Many of them, such as Chaminade-Julienne (CJ) and Dayton Leadership Academy (with three full-time artists-in-residence), are located downtown, with St. Anthony and St. Benedict the Moor in nearby urban neighborhoods and Alexandria Montessori residing in Centerville.

“We’ve really turned our entire art department over to them,” CJ Assistant Principal Steve Fuchs says of the current collaboration with K12. “We already knew K12 and now it had moved closer to us,” he explains, so CJ first turned to the gallery to replace its ceramics class after the longtime ceramics teacher retired. The advantages of continued collaborations soon became apparent to administrators. “K12 is able to provide specialists in different areas,” he continues. “Their instructors are highly skilled, some with their own studios. They have in-depth knowledge, and they are bringing that and sharing that with our students.”

Unique to the CJ collaboration are its four-minute walking distance to the gallery and the way class periods are distributed so that once a week, each subject has a 92-minute period. That’s when art classes are held at K12. There, students experience the gestalt of the large space dedicated to art of all kinds. They can use the dark room and ceramics studio, too. “The kids like being able to work in a bigger space and have more resources available to them than what a high school classroom has,” Fuchs says.

In addition to being an artist-in-residence at CJ and Montessori, Haapapuro teaches a weekly class of homeschool students, ranging in age from 5 to 15. Because Haapapuro does not give assignments with expected outcomes or award grades, she doesn’t really consider herself an art teacher. “We make art together,” she says. Art is meant to be shared, as every parent knows who has proudly displayed a child’s drawing on the refrigerator door. However, the “homeschool crew,” as she calls them, often creates large installation pieces sometimes involving paintings and sculptures, as well as costumes and performances. These need something more than magnets and a spot on the fridge. Haapapuro’s student works have been exhibited at the Dayton Visual Arts Center and Dayton Metro Library. At K12, young artists inherently learn the value of creative intelligence and the sweetness of having their work acknowledged and appreciated. They learn to claim what they make and celebrate it.

Coming soon: performance arts—with robots already in the house.

Always on the lookout for new outlets for creative expression, K12 will expand offerings to include dance and the performance arts. The SMAG Dance Collective, an urban-contemporary company, will take the stage once its construction is complete in 2017. Michael Groomes, SMAG’s founder and director, sees collaboration with K12 as an opportunity to develop educational outreach to young people and to provide opportunities for the dancers themselves to grow and stretch. “Part of our mission, is to collaborate with diverse art programs” says Groomes, formerly with DCDC (Dayton Contemporary Dance Company).  SMAG? It’s an acronym of the names of Groomes’ sons: Sean, Michel, and Gavin. Can you tell his own father was a military man? (He worked at Wright Patterson Air Force Base for 26 years.) “They talk in acronyms because that’s the way the military works,” he explains with a hearty laugh.

While not exactly performance art, robots do “perform.” Just watch as the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Math) students join their inventive wits to create and compete with “bots” they have designed at K12. The studio-lab, opened in 2015 with support from Bonds Robotics, is an example of how, Stanard says, K12 can “continue to cultivate new ways to inspire youth creatively.” With her team of creative working artists, gallery administrators,  and TEJAS Coordinator Rebecca Sargent, alongside a board of directors that does not place limits on the art of the possible,  Stanard’s vision continues to evolve.


K12’s history is the stuff of urban legend. Just ask Delores Buchanan, who’s been involved with K12 since the beginning, when Stanard noticed her making dolls from paper bags in the Oregon district. Buchanan remembers Stanard in those days as a “fast-talking, full-of-ideas person.” She recollects how Stanard approached her on rollerblades: “She said to me, ‘I am an art teacher, and I need other art teachers because I have a good idea.’”

Stanard, petite, energetic, and still full of ideas, admits, “In my younger years, I was very arrogant. I think I probably still am. [Back then] I don’t know that I valued the collective energy, or really paid homage to the value of it, but it’s definitely the cornerstone of where it’s taken us today.”

Today, Stanard continues to roll out one idea after another—with Buchanan, Haapapuro, Gibbs, and several of the earliest artist-recruits still on the frontline of K12’s art revolution. From roller-blade recruitment to the nonprofit K12 Gallery on Third Street to the 35,000-square-foot building on Jefferson, Stanard’s credo that art is transformative remains her motivating passion.

So powerful has been the effect of that passion on her family, that Barbara Cerny took her daughter’s board seat (student representative) once she left for college. The Cerny family’s relationship with K12 began when Oxana, at age 5, started attending Friday night art parties, then after-school programs, Saturday classes, and summer art camps.

“She is quite artistic,” says Cerny, an engineer and novelist who says she can’t draw a straight line. “And her talents really came alive in high school,” under the guidance of Scott Gibbs in his masterworks classes. Younger daughter Audra, 16, also began in pre-school programs. She participates in the summer camp, and she has Down syndrome. “I might sign her up for teen programs because of her age, but if after a couple hours [the teacher-artist] realizes it’s not for her, they’ll literally put her in a different class so that she’s getting something out of it,” Cerny explains.

Knowing in an up-close-and-personal way how art has transformed the lives of her daughters, Cerny now advocates for the gallery in the larger community: “I don’t think there are any words to express how getting art into people’s lives—that is where the humanity comes from. Because it is where our feelings are expressed.  That’s what gives us our humanity; that’s what moves us forward as a culture and as a society. What connects us together is art.”

K12 Gallery & TEJAS is located at 341 S. Jefferson Ave. in downtown Dayton. For more information, please visit call 937.461.5149.

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