No corner in the city has seen more activity lately than the intersection of Manchester and Tower Grove sometimes referred to as "Mangrove," the name one of the revitalized buildings has adopted that serves as one entrance to the much-touted Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. An infusion of public interest, private development money and dedicated resources from institutions like BJC and Adams School (the reopened public elementary school there) have made the neighborhood a sort of proving ground for what might be possible when an infusion of all the right elements is brought to bear in a concentrated area.
And so, alongside stalwart market Ujama Maaktaba, the other three corners have received major facelifts, with a music studio and even a day spa (!) planned for nearby storefronts. One bright spot already occupies the southwest corner of the intersection: the Potter's Workshop community art center, a program of the Lighthouse Community Outreach Center across the street.
Stopping by the Potter's Workshop on a gray, drizzly Monday, you'd find the back room alive with excited kids learning to use a potter's wheel and making masks out of rolled clay. Ralph, the gigantic dog who accompanies the pottery instructor, noses around to the delight of the kids, who all take turns bossing him to, "Sit!"
Niki Schrader, the center's art director, came to St. Louis from the Chicago suburbs, via her undergraduate studies in art at Greenville College, in Illinois. The center has been several years in the making, and she is clearly proud to have it up and running.
"It's great for the people of this neighborhood to have something to call their own, where they know they can send their kids because it's a safe place for them to hang out after school," Schrader said. "Just since we've been open, we've had a lot of interest and inquiries from outside the neighborhood even from as far as West County so we're going to have to work out a waiting list system and some kind of fair payment system."
The programs offered at The Potter's Workshop are the draw, with classes for every age from preschool to adult, including ceramics, drawing, mixed media, collage, weaving, painting and even a fashion design/drawing class for teens. Schrader teaches some classes, but has also enlisted a corps of artists who volunteer their time to come in and teach courses in their own specialties. Classes are offered every day, with each session running a couple of months at a time. The programs and materials are free, funded by private donations, churches, and outside grants.
"We have so many artistically and musically talented people in this neighborhood," said Schrader. "It's awesome to work with people and use their excitement to build this into a true community center, something that people can see as a means of self-expression." Drawing on local talent, Schrader plans to host gallery nights in the near future, where neighborhood artists can show and sell their works. Already, the walls and plate-glass windows are groaning with student-produced artwork, making the already funky space look even more lively. She also hopes to enlist the youngsters at the center to paint some storefront murals for as-yet unrehabbed buildings in the area.
"We know how lucky we are to have such a beautiful space to call our own," she said. "It was important to us to have this open, inviting space, and not to do something like put bars on all these windows. It just instigates that 'criminal' attitude, you know? We risk maybe getting a broken window or something, sure, but you know what? We'll fix it. This is a neighborhood where we know how to take care of the things that are ours."
Along with lots of other enthusiastic workers at Lighthouse Community Outreach Center, Schrader gets legitimacy from living in the neighborhood, about a block away from the Potter's Workshop. The relationships she already had with kids and families helped make the art venture successful.
"They know me from living on my block, and sometimes from seeing me at church at Lighthouse Free Methodist," she said. "They respect that my work here is part of my ministry, and even though I don't want the art center to be some heavy, 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus' thing, parents know that we stress morals and building self-esteem in everything we do. It's why they trust us with their children."
The Potter's Workshop welcomes tax-deductible donations, donated art supplies and inquiries from prospective art teachers. Call 531-0955 for more information.
Below are some examples of recent student work, along with a few snapshots of a typical afternoon class. Click on a thumbnail image to view the large version.