Art has always been a part of Topsfield artist Sandy Runnion’s life, and she’s explored it through many outlets; Runnion ran her own design firm for 12 years after studying graphic design at the Art Institute of Boston. In recent years, Runnion’s love of art has taken her in a different direction: the ArtRoom, an innovative Fine Art school for kids. “I started the ArtRoom in my home when my son was in preschool,” Runnion explains. “I wanted to engage with art and run a business while being a mom. I’ve always loved color and design, but I found through teaching that I also loved creating concepts for projects that would help kids develop their artistic skill.” Runnion taught a handful of local kids in her own home, but quickly realized that the demand for art education had outgrown her space. The ArtRoom moved to a small location in downtown Topsfield, where it flourished for nearly 10 years. “It was scary at first to make the jump to renting a location,” says Runnion. “But there was such a great response from the community.”
The ArtRoom’s newest location in Topsfield’s recently renovated Downtown Crossing has opened even more doors for children on the North Shore. The bright, spacious studio has plenty of wall space to display student art, and bins filled with every type of art supply line the walls. The ArtRoom runs classes year-round in four sessions: fall, winter, and spring sessions are 12-week courses that meet after school once a week to explore different art styles and techniques. “Over a 12-week session, students will complete three or four projects using a wide variety of techniques,” says Runnion. During the summer, the ArtRoom runs daily classes for kids aged four to 12, touching on a different topic each week; students can sign up to learn skills like sculpture, fashion design, painting, printmaking, and even skateboard deck design. A course called “Drawing and Painting Animals” is especially popular; Runnion works with local animal owners to bring a different live animal each day. “We’ve had chickens, puppies, rabbits, tortoises, and even baby goats,” says Runnion. For high schoolers, Runnion runs a weekly Open Studio where budding artists can develop their portfolios. Seven instructors, including local artists and college students, work alongside Runnion to bring a wide variety of skills to the table.
Runnion employs techniques that she learned in her time at the Art Institute of Boston to replicate the art school experience for her students. “The ArtRoom is a commitment for kids, just like any sport or musical instrument,” she says. “Everyone who’s there has chosen to be there, and my students take art seriously—we’re learning real fine art techniques, not just arts and crafts.” Students focus on the concept of their art from beginning to end—planning their projects, learning techniques to execute them, and focusing on the project’s complete presentation. “Kids can be proud of the work they do here, from start to finish,” says Runnion. Inspiring transformations are a daily occurrence at the ArtRoom: “I’ve had all kinds of students—shy children, artistic kids, confident kids—but they all seem to blossom and become more confident when their work is acknowledged positively.” To that end, Runnion showcases student art on the ArtRoom walls, and the Topsfield Town Library hosts a yearly ArtRoom show as well. “Students see their own work on display and feel happy and proud,” adds Runnion. “That’s been my primary goal: to create a calm, happy space where kids can develop confidence in their skills.”
The success of the ArtRoom has exceeded all of Runnion’s expectations. “I keep trying to figure out why it works so well!” she says. “I give a lot of credit to the North Shore community. There are so many wonderful artists here, and parents have a really strong appreciation of art that they pass down to their kids.” As the ArtRoom grows in coming years, Runnion hopes to explore more options for people of every age. “We recently had an open class for adults,” she says. “We had music, snacks, and a professional flamenco dancer who agreed to model. I’d love to have more classes like that, to engage adults in the community.”