Community, Creativity and Commerce: A Look at Ambrose

Circled by a crowd of teenagers seated on the floor, artist Jason Rood gets down on his hands and knees to show off a portfolio of his recent work.

In one drawing, a man blows lightning bolts out of a cloud. Another depicts a raccoon in a step-by-step diagram of dance moves to Michael Jackson's "Beat It." A hairy monster in a trucker hat is a reoccurring character in some of the inked sheets, including one that features a party of adults lounging in and around a kiddie pool.

"I just started doing what my mind came up with," Rood says. "You know, I'm just going to draw a pine tree with arms on it because that's fun."

At first glance, the product looks a bit absurd, but it's the process that's key to a creativity venture teaching Holland-area youth to refine artistic skills for the benefit of the broader community.

The brainchild of Adam and Jenna Weiler, Ambrose is named after a 4th-century Catholic bishop, the patron saint of learning, who, as legend has it, melted the church's fortune of ornamental gold to give as a ransom for kidnapped congregants.

This Ambrose was created two years ago as a non-profit collective designed to spark innovation in the minds of high school kids, fostering a generation of youth both creative and entrepreneurial. Through weekly workshops during the school year, Ambrose exposes students not to the three R's of "reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic," but to three C's: "community, creativity and commerce."

Weeklong camps, at a $50 fee, are being held this summer on drawing, design, printmaking and photography.

The purpose: Expose kids to fine and applied arts, thus preparing them to earn a living and nurture a just world through inventive work.
"If we can build into students the ability to observe what is and make new things with what already exists, that sort of innovation is going to translate into new businesses," Adam Weiler, 28, says. "How can we melt those (creativity skills) down and repurpose them?"

At a drawing camp last month, led by Rood and other West Michigan artists, students scrawled onto a Van Raalte School classroom chalkboard a list of things that frustrate them. The hodgepodge included big-picture problems like oil dependence and environmental destruction, as well as little annoyances such as sunburns and cold toilet seats. The lesson was set: Every problem presents an opportunity for ingenuity.  And as the artists talked about Micron pens using terms like value, lines and shade, their dialogue clearly had relevance beyond the art studio.

"You don't always have to have all the answers right away," said artist and guest instructor Christina Mrozik, explaining how she creates her fanciful drawings of animals. "Sometimes it's just putting the time in investigating the idea."

Weiler's original idea was to become an engineer. Then, studying at Central College, the Iowa native took a drawing class that changed his course.

Armed with a degree in art and math and a desire to work with kids, and married to a Hope College grad, Weiler came to live in Holland where he served as a church youth pastor. He soon found that the most meaningful exchanges with kids occurred in a creative setting. Hence, Ambrose.

"It frees you up to ask good questions," said Weiler. "The neutral space of this creative outlet yielded infinitely more honest answers (from kids).

"It would have been a much-needed space for me in high school. The most life-changing moments for me have been relational and not full of an agenda."

To make ends meet, Weiler designs and screenprints T-shirts. Jenna, his wife, is an administrative assistant at Jubilee Ministries and also works at Groundswell, a community supported agriculture farm near Zeeland.

During the drawing camp last month, attended by about 12 students from Holland, Holland Christian, West Ottawa and Black River schools and Wavecrest Career Academy, artist Dennis Nagelkirk told students to push the classroom desks into a corner and out of the way so Rood could show his work on the floor.

"It's too much like school in here," he said.

Said Weiler, later: "We don't want to be like school. The big thing is how do we build a culture for kids to learn."

Looking back, Weiler appreciates the costly formal education he got, but claims his real training came from interning at a museum exhibit design firm in Chicago. So, an Ambrose curriculum set to debut this fall envisions mentoring and apprenticeship as the climax of a 3-step continuum: expose students to artist/entrepreneurs in Holland; teach technical skills through workshops led by artists; foster, through peer groups, mentoring, internships and apprenticeships, a sense of community contribution. A mentor recruiting drive is planned this fall.

"It's not just about art," Weiler says. "It's about using that creativity to rethink how we do things. Lots of good things happen when kids dream, when they're exposed to new ways of living. They can imagine a different future than what has been handed to them."

Matt Vande Bunte writes about business, government, religion and other things. His work has appeared in newspapers including The Grand Rapids Press and Chicago Tribune and in assorted sectors of cyberspace.
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