By Pamela Dozois
Sitting in the waiting room of the Buellton Medical Clinic, Samantha Garcia occupied her time by drawing a picture of a superhero. She had no idea that her sketch would spark a new future for her and for many other budding artists with the creation of the Santa Ynez Valley Teen Arts program.
When Samantha, then 13, got in to see pediatrician Dr. Christopher Elstner, she was surprised by what she heard.
“Dr. Elstner noticed I was drawing a superhero and looking at it, he praised my work, saying I was an artist,” Samantha recalled. “This was kind of different for me, as I was very reclusive at the time and wouldn’t show people my work. His words made me feel empowered like the superhero I had just drawn.”
Elstner decided that he would like to help promote Garcia’s talent, so he made arrangements for her to join the Santa Barbara Arts Fund, an art program where artists teach students.
“My mother drove me to Santa Barbara to attend the classes, but it was a lot of driving for her. I realized that I couldn’t continue the commute as I didn’t drive at the time, and there were no other resources in the valley for artists like myself, who wanted to learn more and excel in their craft,” Samantha said.
“I started to look into other possibilities and began to speak with my friends and other kids in my social group and reach out to other arts-based classes about forming an art group in the valley,” she continued. “A number of kids were interested. It was then that Dr. Elstner and I decided to form a local arts group, called Santa Ynez Valley Teen Arts, in 2015. We looked into available spaces and Dr. Elstner suggested St. Mark’s Church.”
“We spoke to Reverend Randall Day, rector of St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley-Episcopal Church and he agreed to provide us the space we needed to start the group,” said Garcia. “I felt it was a lovely creative atmosphere because they are so open to different faiths and different people.
“It started off really small with only six or seven students, including myself,” she said. “Dr. Elstner helped out financially. We looked for artists who were willing to teach and had something they wanted to teach as well.”
To date the participating teachers at Santa Ynez Valley Teen Arts are John Iwerks, Callie Martin, Chris and Laura Silva, Christi Schaeffer, Chef Budi Kazali, Mad Academy, Nathan Snyder, Nevin Littlehale (who is Samantha’s mentor), Pamela Zwehl-Burke, Paul Rupp, Saul Alcarez, Suemae Lin Willhite, Vidya Gauci, and Zoe Nathan.
The classes as very free-form, Samantha said, where the students ask questions and learn techniques in a creative space, without judgment. They learn about art and also about how art is related to what is happening in their lives.
The students talk freely about whatever is on their minds, and they learn to critique each other’s work while learning from one another and discovering that they are truly artists in their own right.
Many teens have received personalized instruction in painting in oil, acrylic and Chinese water color, drawing, photography, animation, glass blowing, ceramics, and professional culinary arts.
They meet seasonally, usually three sets of classes in the spring and fall; two back-to-back afternoons on Sundays from 1-4 p.m., with lunch included. Students range in age from 13-18 but exceptions can be made on the basis of talent.
“The environment allows us complete freedom to create whatever we want, whatever comes to mind without interference or judgment. The group encourages individual creative space,” she said. “The classes are free and each participant is provided all the necessary supplies, paint, brushes, and canvases, whatever supplies are needed for that specific class, which they can then take home in order to complete the project or to create a new one,” Samantha said.
One of the groups’ more recent projects was painting “Little Free Library” book-exchange boxes for Los Olivos Rotary. Each student painted the back of one of the 15 wooden boxes.
The art on each box is either valley-themed or a portrait of a literary figure, including Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe and Pablo Neruda. The boxes will begin to appear around the valley this spring.
“It’s nice to contribute to the community esthetic,” Samantha said. “Hopefully in the future we will be able to do another community project.
“We also create art for the senior centers. My grandmother, who at 93 has Alzheimer’s, loves to look endlessly at my paintings, so I hope that other seniors would enjoy our art pieces as well.”
“Santa Ynez Valley Teen Arts became a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2017, under the umbrella of the Santa Barbara Foundation. Luckily grants help with the financial aspect of things, providing us with the necessary supplies we need to learn and grow,” she said.
She particularly thanked Anne Christensen, Kyle Abello and Alfonso Gonzalez, directors of the Santa Ynez Valley Foundation, for their contributions and support.
“Art is like another language to me – it’s like a language of the soul. A bit of me is in every piece that I create,” Samantha said. “I have struggled through many difficult circumstance in my life, and for me to come out and create something is very meaningful and precious – both creating art myself and helping others to reach their full creative potential.”
“I am hoping to be able to be involved in the Santa Ynez Valley Teen Arts project for a long time. I know I will eventually go off to college, to UC or USC, and I would love to be able to leave this group in the hands of another inspired artist,” she added.
Elstner has been practicing primary-care pediatrics in the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara area for more than 30 years. He now practices at the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinic in Goleta, a place where all patients are welcome regardless of their financial condition. He also has spent time in South Sudan as a pediatrician for Doctors Without Borders.
He says his favorite thing in life is to see others grow and learn to find themselves through their art.
For more information or to donate, visit www.santaynezvalleyteenarts.com.