A Small Space With A Broad Embrace
Packing an impossible number of disciplines into a small floorplan, CHAW is a study in creative storage, communal living, and flexible scheduling.
In the upstairs art room, oil paintings are efficiently stashed away to make space for an afterschool mixed media class where students turn pipe cleaners, foam, and feathers into fantastical birds. The dance studio transforms into a sculpture studio, with wooshing tutus trading spots for the medium of rigid, metal wire. Downstairs, a film darkroom, ceramics workshop, and 60-seat black box theater, all nestled unexpectedly in the basement, await the joy to be discovered in their next offering of developing, and forming, and observing.
With such a wide spectrum of offerings, CHAW manages to punch way above its weight. It serves more than 6,000 students, artists, and patrons each year. Those who are used to luxurious art galleries or spacious single-use studios might scoff at the density, but CHAW isn’t here to exclude. It’s here to embrace as much art as it can. The more art, the better.
Student in the mixed media art class
That’s not to say that CHAW isn’t serious about quality. Its vision for “community art” is much bigger than macaroni and paper plates. Its students and teachers produce high quality work, which is important to its philosophy of impact. CHAW’s leaders regard art as a tool for justice, investing in excellent programming at the same time that they expand the breadth of their programs.
As a result, CHAW is a place where great art—and access to that art—serves as an equalizer and unifier. “The greater the [quality of the] art, the better the experience…the stronger, the better the justice,” Amy asserts.
Tight proximity of so much art also has a practical benefit: it allows ideas, activities, and people to interact in unique and unpredictable ways. It’s not uncommon to hear an aspiring violinist squeak through lessons while you paint, or to catch a whiff of a hot glue gun from the afterschool class next door. It’s only distracting if you let it be; most people at CHAW, students and teachers alike, think it’s exciting, even inspiring.
There’s a certain nuance to that posture—not just accepting the presence of others but embracing them—that is shared and especially appreciated among members of its community.
Taffety Punk Theater Company first came to CHAW in 2008 when they secured the black box theater to perform an all-female version of Romeo and Juliet. “There was like a metalsmithing class going on downstairs,” recalls Marcus Kyd, the director. “We were about to get up and apologize to the audience, or something. And then I laughed, and I was like, ‘It's Verona in the 1600s, so just imagine those are sword fights happening somewhere else.’”
Marcus has grown to love the dynamism of art at CHAW, and it provides a refreshing respite from the isolation that professional theater can bring. He founded Taffety Punk with his friends because they wanted to create an environment where actors, dancers, and musicians could collaborate. What better place to call home than the most packed and diverse art building in DC?
Carolina Mayorga is an accomplished visual artist, having exhibited her work internationally for over 20 years. She has taught youth and adult classes at CHAW for the past 16, ever since she moved to DC from Colombia, via Kansas. The sculptures on the front of CHAW’s building are her work—an enormous musical note and a ballerina caught mid-pirouette flanking the columns on either side of the entrance, as well as the little metal grasshopper perched on a streetlamp nearby.
You might assume her aspirations would lead her beyond a job in community art, but you’d be wrong. CHAW has become as much a part of her practice as it is her day job. “My students influence my work a lot,” she explains. “I do a lot of childlike animations and little videos and that definitely has to do a lot with teaching kids for a long time. I like that language that is so approachable.”
CHAW’s vast offerings are also part of its outreach strategy. It means there’s something for everyone. Once you walk in the doors, the odds are high that there’s something—a class, a performance—that will bring you back, again and again.
For example, around Capitol Hill, CHAW is known most prominently for its afterschool programs. Because of that reputation, local parents often assume it’s just a place for kids. But then they sign their children up for a class, and when they drop them off, they notice the ceramics room, or hear about the figure drawing class—suddenly, it’s their place too.
Access + Exposure
CHAW’s leaders take access as seriously as they take their art. It’s a point of pride that they have never turned anyone away for an inability to pay. Their classes have room for beginners and professionals, elementary school students and working professionals.
As a result, classes at CHAW forge deep, and sometimes unexpected, connections that wouldn’t happen anywhere else. They provide the condition for classes like Ellen’s to flourish, where multiple generations share cookies and pop open craft beer while crowding around an easel to offer constructive feedback.
But access also drives a secondary, individual effect: exposure to new ideas and skills. Among participants young and old, CHAW is often the spark for dreams and personal growth.
Bettie Graham started bringing her daughter, Anna Elizabeth, to CHAW for afterschool classes when she was in first grade. Anna Elizabeth is on the autism spectrum, and ever since she was a toddler, Bettie noticed her propensity for drawing as a form of communication. After she heard about CHAW from a teacher at Anna Elizabeth’s elementary school, Bettie knew it would be the perfect opportunity to invest in her interests and abilities.
Bettie Graham and her daughter, Anna Elizabeth
“I knew she already liked art and so that's what we started with,” she says, “and that really just kind of helped expose her to things.”
Anna Elizabeth took classes every semester through fourth grade, only stopping due to a scheduling conflict with another afterschool academy. She took up almost everything CHAW offered, from ceramics, to puppetry, to capoeira. But it was the embroidery and fashion design classes that gripped her the most.
Bettie helped her invest more in that area, taking her to additional sewing lessons outside of CHAW. Then one day Anna Elizabeth broke one of her snow boots. Bettie was ready to take her to the cobbler, but Anna Elizabeth had different plans.
Bettie Graham and her daughter, Anna Elizabeth
“She just got some needle and thread one day and just sat down and she stitched up the back of her boot,” Bettie remembers.
Now, if you ask Anna Elizabeth what she wants to be, she’ll tell you she’s going to be a wardrobe designer. But Bettie will tell you CHAW has done more than give her daughter a vocational pursuit; it’s also built her self-esteem and life skills. Anna Elizabeth recently entered an art contest sponsored by Scholastic and ended up winning first place.
“I think that CHAW gave her the confidence to do that,” Bettie observes, but notes that Anna Elizabeth doesn’t understand the subtle ways CHAW has benefited her life. “I don't necessarily think she might see all of it yet.”
Amy hears those kinds of stories all the time, and it’s one of the reasons she’s so convinced of the importance of art. It seeps into the way we think and what we feel about ourselves, and leaves us bolder, healthier people.
“The number one piece of feedback we get from parents, from the kids who come to class here, is, ‘My kid is so much more confident,’” she says.
The effect of exposure is often the inverse for adults who take part in CHAW’s programming. They find themselves rediscovering lost creativity, shedding their façade of confidence and control. It’s the kind of place that inspires event planners to quit their jobs and become ceramicists. (Yes, that really happened.)
Jenna Jablonski is an adult student whose trajectory has been deeply influenced by her time at CHAW. She currently works in marketing and creative media full-time, and although she drew throughout her entire childhood, she unintentionally dropped the habit in college and stopped setting aside personal time for art. She signed up for life drawing with Ellen on a whim in 2015 after finding an online coupon.
“CHAW has really been the catalyst to me restarting my entire creative practice, my drawing practice,” she reflects. “Now, that's such a fundamental part of my life, but I really didn't have any of that before I came to CHAW. It was just a forgotten part of me.”
As a Capitol Hill resident, Jenna says she sees people from CHAW all around the area. Thanks to her spur of the moment decision, she now enjoys a network of relationships with her classmates and neighbors that extends into daily life.
Beyond accessing this new community and tapping into her creative interests, CHAW has been instrumental in sharpening skills and opening up possibilities for the future. With the encouragement and mentorship of Ellen and other CHAW community members, she’s even considering a move into professional art.
In addition to sparking new careers like Jenna’s, CHAW provides a valuable platform for those who are already professional artists, a rare space that opens its doors with few expectations.
Lenora Yerkes is a DC-based artist focused on narrative drawing. She’s frustrated by the lack of accessible artistic residencies in the area, and doesn’t feel they offer practical opportunities for artists who also work day jobs.
A few years ago, she was looking for opportunities to dive deeper into her craft when CHAW caught her eye. Ellen started CHAW’s paid residency program in 2016 to provide working space to local artists, and also to showcase the process of art to students and visitors. Running six weeks each winter, it turns the building’s gallery space into a workshop: a place for the featured artist to create and build.
That’s exactly what Lenora needed. During her 2019 residency, she moved elements of her own studio to the CHAW gallery, from her houseplants, to her books and even her rug.
“I didn't need a place to live,” she says, “and I didn't need free room and board for like a month. I can't fit that into my life. What I needed was [the] kind of time and space and money to help me really devote some energy to it.”
By the end of her residency, Lenora was grateful not only for the resources provided by CHAW, but also for the influence its location and community had on her art. Her final body of work was informed by the architecture and feeling of the neighborhood itself.
Time and space are rare resources in DC, as are access and exposure to the arts. By providing all four, CHAW has hit a certain sweet spot for its community, where children can cultivate their creativity, where adults can reconnect with their forgotten inner artist, where long-term friendships can blossom, and where careers and ideas can grow.
A Philosophy of Abundance
Many nonprofits, particularly arts nonprofits, spend a majority of their time thinking about funding and grants. CHAW isn’t immune to funding needs, but you’d be hard-pressed to hear many of its leaders talk about money. You’re more likely to hear them planning for an upcoming project or working on a new partnership with another neighborhood organization.
It’s all rooted in a philosophy of abundance. CHAW leaders believe that there are plenty of resources to go around, and we’re better off when we help each other. After all, that’s the same assertion that CHAW is instilling in its students and community through art—that empathy is everything.
About 8 years ago, CHAW had very low registration for their summer camp. At the same time, there were hundreds of families living at DC General, a now-closed former hospital that was being used as a homeless shelter east of Capitol Hill.
Amy was the Director of Education at the time and thought there could be a good use for the open seats at summer camp. Working with CHAW’s Executive Director and the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, they adjusted their camp programming and provided transportation, bringing children from DC General to participate throughout the summer.
“We didn't really have funding designated for it,” Amy remembers. “There was nothing like that. I mean, we were the ones that benefited the most, because they filled our classes, and the classes work a lot better when they're filled. There's just more art going on. It's just more dynamic.”
It also taught her an important lesson about coalition building.
“That was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for me,” she says, “about how to turn the tables on partnerships, and positioning ourselves not necessarily as the experts or anything, and maybe not on the front lines, but on the secondary or tertiary lines.”
Lately she’s been turning that insight into action with a growing number of partnerships across Capitol Hill and DC in general.
Maurice Cook, founder, Serve Your City
Maurice Cook is the founder of Serve Your City, a nonprofit established to “inspire and empower at-risk DC students,” and a partner of CHAW’s.
A lifelong DC resident, Maurice was inspired to start Serve Your City when he saw the negative effects of gentrification in his hometown. Specifically, he points to disinvestment in local school systems as a reason for the loss of crucial programs like art and physical education. Now Serve Your City addresses those gaps by giving their students access to typically unattainable activities. (For example, they have the only majority-black youth rowing crew in DC.)
Serve Your City found a like-minded and generous partner in CHAW.
“I said, ‘Hey, I know about CHAW, let me go and ask [them] if there are any ways that we can form collaborations or incorporate or infuse our kids into their activities,’” he remembers. “And CHAW was like, ‘Of course! You're in.’”
CHAW offered Serve Your City free rein of their dance studio, which they currently use to host yoga classes for students on Fridays.
Dance class commences
Lately, Maurice and Amy have been taking steps to formalize their mutual support. Together CHAW and Serve Your City have formed an unofficial group called the Coalition for Limitless Youth.
Practically, this means that the leaders of each organization are keeping an eye out for resources, ideas, and opportunities that could help the others achieve their missions.
“If we're not taking care of each other, then what are we doing here?” asks Maurice.
Amy doesn’t think the idea is particularly revolutionary. She simply doesn’t understand why any organization, let alone an arts organization, should be selfish about resources.
“As far as I'm concerned, the more arts organizations that are out there, the better it is for all of us,” she says, “because that means people want more art. It's this self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing, you know? Healthy begets healthy, and art begets art.”
Expanding the Neighborhood
Steadily, perhaps even unintentionally, CHAW’s mission is gathering momentum through word of mouth, partnerships, and an optimistic “yes” to every idea. CHAW is humble and consistent in its work, but enthusiasm and creativity are impossible to contain.
Lately, its programs have been reaching further than ever. It’s not the result of a five-year strategic plan or a donor-led initiative; it’s simply the natural consequence of community members who have been inspired to impact more people.
“I think what CHAW is doing here in this neighborhood is what needs to happen all over the world. We need spaces that are community spaces, that everyone feels like they have access to and ownership of.”
Marcus, Taffety Punk director
Sometimes the expansion happens in small ways.
Last fall, CHAW planned to exhibit the Migrant Quilt Project, a collection of 18 pieces memorializing immigrants who have died in the Arizona desert. Jenna, the life drawing student, is a member of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, a Capitol Hill congregation committed to global refugee relief and support.
She facilitated a connection between the two organizations, which led to the quilts being displayed in both locations—ultimately creating more access to the exhibit around town.
Other times, the growth is more visible.
Kate Fleming is a painter, printmaker, muralist, and installation artist from Arlington, Virginia. In 2018 she was the artist in residence at CHAW, and in 2019 she came to Amy with a proposition. She and Tom Woodruff, a photojournalist, would travel to all 50 states in a van over the course of a year, making art, facilitating conversations, and doing research on how we’re united and divided as a nation. Upon their return, they would curate their work and exhibit it back at CHAW.
Unsurprisingly, Amy said yes. (“It was a no brainer,” she recalls, smiling.) CHAW had a bit of funding available which, together with Kate and Tom’s own fundraising, was enough to send them on their way in November 2019. Every two weeks they check in with CHAW’s youth arts program, giving the kids an opportunity to ask questions about their experiences on the road and to interact with professional working artists on a personal level. The kids respond to the check ins with their own work which will be included in the project’s exhibit at CHAW when Kate and Tom return.
After school art students at CHAW video chat with Kate and Tom on their bi-monthly call to get an update about the 50 States Project.
In many ways, the 50 States Project is the perfect reflection of CHAW’s approach. It’s the result of an idealistic and creative idea. It combines mediums and disciplines. It reaches across 50 states but is also rooted in a regular rhythm of conversation with the Capitol Hill community. It contends that art is essential to understanding ourselves and our neighbors around the nation.
Meanwhile, Amy and the CHAW team are cheering them on from home. They’re offering support and guidance, but they’re not prescribing what the project needs to be or do. Why?
“Because it's her project,” Amy explains. “How do we facilitate, stay out of her way, and yet give her the support that she needs?”
CHAW’s own growth and reputation is less important than the spreading of its vision. With every violin lesson, with every artist, like Kate and Tom, starting an ambitious project, with every student finding a new channel to express themselves, with every partnership that expands access to art, and with every new friendship or collaboration that evolves within its building, CHAW is one step closer to achieving its goal.
At the end of the day, CHAW exists to spread art as widely as possible. If that means partnering with adjacent organizations, saying yes more often than expected, or embracing the complexity of a multiuse space, its staff is along for the ride.
As for anyone who stumbles upon CHAW, through friends, online coupons, or stories like this one, Amy’s hope is quite simple: that they would stop by for a class if they’re around DC—or at a minimum that they would try something new.
“I think a lot of people don't believe they belong in art spaces, and everybody does,” she says. “Whether there's this elitist art thing that keeps people away, or it's a socioeconomic thing that keeps them away, we want and need everybody here. We need each other, at the end of the day.”