The Fresh Artists story actually begins back in 2006 when the superintendent of schools in Philadelphia asked designer Barbara Chandler Allen to “bring the face of the children" into the School District of Philadelphia's new 850,000-square foot central Education Center that had previously been home to the printing plant of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.
Barbara’s initial idea was to frame original children’s art for the walls, but her son and business partner, Roger, had worked in a print shop with a forty-four-inch printer and he had a better idea. He suggested that they could photograph or scan the children’s artwork, enlarge it, and output large format digital reproductions. “We could do multiples, using one image more than once and make them at various sizes to fit the space the artwork needed to occupy,” she says. “Some of the pieces are enlarged to six feet by ten feet and larger. This scale was appropriate for the huge building and the overall effect was stunning.”
Soon the Allens were hearing from everyone who saw the large blowups of children’s art asking to purchase this artwork. At that point the two designers realized that the children themselves could play an active part in fixing the critical shortage of art supplies for their classrooms. They started a nonprofit called Fresh Artists and began to invite children to donate the use of their select artwork to help other children in schools in need. They built a digital collection of children’s art, now numbering more that 800 pieces, and began to approach corporate clients to make financial donations. The corporate donors receive their choice of reproductions from the collection as a “thank-you” for their financial support.
According to Allen, Fresh Artists actually has three missions: (1.) To create opportunities for underprivileged children in under-resourced schools to be philanthropists, helping other children; (2.) to exhibit K-12 children’s artwork in highly visible, unexpected places to advocate for keeping a strong art program in our public schools; and (3.) to deliver art supplies and innovative art programs directly to grateful art teachers struggling with severe slashes in their budgets.
Fresh Artists concentrates on school districts with high proportions of low-income children, identifies extraordinary art made by these children that is appropriate for corporate installations, and invites the children to donate the use of their art with no expectation of receiving anything in return. “We try to help the kids in the roughest schools, because we believe making art should be a part of every child’s education, especially those living in danger and deprivation,” says Allen. “The healing, self-expression that making art brings can be a lifeline for many disadvantaged children.”
After artwork has been selected, children and their guardians sign licenses allowing Fresh Artists to use a digital image of the artwork. The original artwork is then photographed or scanned at high resolution, and returned to the child, who then permanently retains the copyright and ownership of their original art forever. (Note: Allen says that 677 children have donated their art images so far.)
Fresh Artists accepts corporate and individual contributions to fund its mission. As a thank-you, financial donors may choose large-scale, high-resolution, digital reproductions of the children’s art for display in their facilities, and receive a tax deduction for their financial gift.
Most of Fresh Artists printing is done by commercial print provider Service Point USA, which outputs the graphics onto instant-dry satin photo paper and mounts them via adhesives onto Gatorfoam® board. Then Fresh Artists interns and volunteers stand them off the walls with short pieces of PVC pipe. A Plexiglas® label tells viewers the child’s name, their grade, and the original size and medium of the artwork. “We have a simple but visually attractive installation method. We put drywall screws right through the print’s corners, and stand-offs hold them away from the wall,” explains Allen. “We’ll place a number of spacers behind the middle of the piece, so that there’s no bowing or movement.
“This simple but elegant method is efficient and economical. We can install these pieces in less than five minutes.”
Meanwhile Fresh Artists recently opened the Print Studio, a teen internship program that’s designed to introduce inner city teens to the sign and graphics industry. This new teaching workshop enables the teen interns to use state-of-the-art donated equipment to print some signature large format digital prints of children’s artwork as a gift to homeless shelters, half-way houses, and soup kitchens. The Print Studio creates opportunities for disadvantaged youth to learn real-life, marketable business skills in the graphics industry.
“We want to take serious-minded high-school kids with a good work ethic and introduce them to the sign profession,” says Allen. “We think the sign industry is the coolest thing in the world. We love the tools, and we love the results. What we’ve done is put a different spin on what people are printing.
“If we can put some really talented, focused kids into your industry, we will feel that we have done something important.”
(Pictured Above: Senior Apprentice Tanika (center) gently guides a 42-by-68-inch print of a second grader's interpretation of Van Gogh's sunflowers off the large format inkjet printer. She helps the print manager mount it to Gatorboard, part of a ten-piece donation to a shelter for homeless women and children.)
HP donated a HP 5200 Designjet forty-four- and sixty-inch 25500 latex printer to help with some of this reproduction work, and Epson gave them their top-of-the-line 12-by-18-inch fine art flatbed scanner. This takes care of most of their artwork, but the pieces that are too big or too lumpy are taken care of by either Silicon Gallery Fine Art or Profiles, two local fine art digital reproduction firms that donated all their services.
This organization is extraordinarily grateful for the equipment donations provided by the sign industry. In addition to strong support from HP and Epson, machinery manufacturer Biesse created signs for them out of expanded foam; Neschen donated a laminator; 3A Composites recently shipped five additional cartons of Gatorfoam; ImageOne Impact provided grommets; Testrite Visual Display donated racks for the group to display children’s artwork at art shows; and Ergosoft contributed RIP software. Sign and P-O-S company Markley Enterprise in Elkhart, Indiana fabricated memory games that they designed showcasing the kids’ artwork. Their first customer was Anthropologie, placing the children’s games in their stores around the world. Fresh Artists uses all proceeds of these games to support the delivery of art supplies and programs in poor public schools.
Fresh Artists has also partnered with SGIA to create a network of "Fresh Artists" print providers and installers within the SGIA community to participate in the program, provide prints, and work with corporations and community service organizations that support Fresh Artists’ goals.
Other Fresh Artists programs include:
Mini-Masterpieces: World-class museums enable kids to visit, “adopt” their favorite artist, and interpret a masterpiece (Note: Allen also has a background as a museum administrator);
Sprout Studio: A nonprofit entrepreneurial design business where elementary and middle school kids work with a real “client” and creative professionals bringing real products and projects to life;
Greenhouse: A “hothouse” of entrepreneurial ideas, networking support, and development acumen help art teachers bring much-needed resources to their classrooms;
Books: Two children’s storybooks—available in English and Spanish – and given free to children to illustrate the concept of civic engagement and philanthropy;
Clothesline Art Sales: A grass-roots initiative enables any child or groups of children to help bring art supplies to schools in need; and
Salon on the Schuylkill: An annual art show and event powered by the Fresh
Artists Business Advisory Council and presenting the freshest new art from the collection.
To date, Fresh Artists has permanently installed more than 1,032 large format reproductions of children’s art across the country in high-profile corporate offices, family shelters, child abuse centers, medical centers, research institutions, and entertainment facilities. A prominent Philadelphia architect has expanded this vision by including some of this artwork as vinyl wall coverings decorating entire hallways.
And Fresh Artists itself has also expanded—it is now inviting children in New York City and Denver public school districts to be part of the program.
In five years, Fresh Artists has donated the value of $185,000 of art supplies to the poorest schools in Philadelphia. “Art supplies are wonderful, and the empowerment of the children is astonishing,” says Allen, “but our real goal is to change the way everybody thinks about public education and to not turn their back on the challenges it is undergoing.”
Allen describes her young art donors as “artists/philanthropists” who are bringing their incredibly beautiful art to thousands of people throughout the country. “Although Fresh Artists children are predominantly low-income, they’re extraordinarily philanthropic,” she says. “They get nothing in return other than a certificate and a t-shirt.
“They will never receive any of the money that their art has raised because it all goes for the greater good. They get satisfaction knowing they are helping other children like them.”
And Allen believes that Fresh Artists is a poster child for the sign industry—“these are signs…with no words,” she says.
A client once told Allen that Fresh Artists goes “sneaky-smart” under the tent of corporate America “making invisible children visible.” “We tell the story that all children have promise and that all children deserve a quality public education,” she says.
Fresh Artists welcomes donations (tax deductible) and contributions from the sign industry to get involved if interested. (Note: They need have an urgent need for a guillotine cutter, T-Shirt printing equipment (so the teen interns can take on the job of making the t-shirts for each child who donates their artwork to Fresh Artists), a small vinyl-cutting machine, a grommet machine, a heavy-duty table-top size encapsulating laminator and a floor rack that holds media with a two-inch core.”)
Anyone interested in more information or donations to Fresh Artists can contact Barbara Chandler Allen at 215/920-3317 or firstname.lastname@example.org.