Local artist Amaranta Ibarra-Sandys stands proudly behind her booth at a pop-up makers market in downtown Seattle. On a white tablecloth sits her original artwork: a Day of the Dead skeleton disc jockey painted on canvas. The heartbeat line behind him warps into Seattle’s skyline, a blend of her Mexican heritage and adopted home.
She notices a 3-year-old wearing a handmade paper flower crown and a white traditional Mexican dress embroidered with colorful flowers browsing her table.
“Little Frida Kahlo!” the artist exclaims. She shows the girl photos of her live art installation, Dos Fridas, in which she dresses like Frida to re-enact the Mexican artist’s 1939 painting, The Two Fridas. The little girl smiles and jumps with excitement; someone shares her admiration for the same painter!
Ibarra-Sandys’ passion for exposing children to the arts stems from her own childhood experience growing up in Mexico City. She remembers visiting La Casa Azul, “The Blue House” where Kahlo once lived, on free museum days, but otherwise didn’t have the opportunity to learn about art until adulthood.
“When I was in elementary school, I never really had an arts education, nor art supplies, because my mom could never afford them,” she says. Today she appreciates having the resources to share art with her 10-year-old son, Lucas, at home in Burien.
Ibarra-Sandys’ first formal introduction to art came in 1995, when she completed a pottery class at Mountlake Terrace Community Center north of Seattle.
“I felt my loneliness was melting into pots and mugs in a foreign country where I experienced a language barrier and felt invisible,” says Ibarra-Sandys.
Now equipped with a degree in ceramics from Mexico’s National Institute of Fine Arts and almost two decades of experience teaching art, the artist is dedicated to making arts accessible to all communities, especially to immigrants like herself. In 2013, she launched Art-Maranth Mobile School, offering free classes on creating self-portraits, dry clay, luminaries, calligraphy and more. The classes are available to children and adults of all ages at several local libraries.
The sponsors behind "Baro Tirinta Af Soomaaliga, Learn to Count in Somali," (Applewood Books, early 2019) a children’s number board book in Somali, took notice and commissioned Ibarra-Sandys as the arts facilitator for this community project.
“We wanted an artist that could provide families with several options about the artistic components and that would be the primary motivator rather than prioritizing their own individual artistic ideas,” writes Kathlyn Paananen from Seattle Public Schools (SPS).
Ibarra-Sandys’ role was to expose various art techniques to five Puget Sound-area Somali families, including children from kindergarten through 12th grade, to learn about different art mediums and ultimately develop skills to illustrate numbers in their collective book. After agreeing on paper collage, Ibarra-Sandys taught the novice participants, including adults.
Safiya, participant and mother to children who also contributed, admits, “I never had experience [in] art so we learned a lot,” adding, “That was very important for me and my community.”
This unique collaboration sponsored by the Somali Family Safety Task Force in partnership with Seattle Housing Authority, SPS, and SPL provided the families a platform to have fun learning art through Ibarra-Sandys’ teachings while simultaneously interacting with one another in Somali.
Encouraged by the entire experience incorporating art with her native language, Yasmin, a mother and participant, shares, “I want to continue in my own language at home.”
Ibarra-Sandys understands that some adults might have reservations about encouraging arts and crafts if they themselves don’t identify as artistic, but says it doesn’t take too much effort to get started.
“Have a corner of your house dedicated to be messy,” she advises families.
If room permits, the art educator suggests placing a well-stocked easel or crafts table for children to explore paints with various-sized paintbrushes, broad and fine-line markers, and paint sticks.
While allowing children to independently experiment with various mediums is important, she also urges parents to join in and get messy while modeling the technique themselves.
Ibarra-Sandys stresses that supplying one’s craft center doesn’t have to be expensive; you can start with materials from your kitchen.
“Salvage colorful bottle and food-pouch caps, scrap paper from other projects, and paper towel tubes,” she says. “Shop local thrift stores for yarn, beads, magazines, and random fabric and dollar stores for seasonal art supplies.”
And finally, the art teacher tells everyone she encounters, “Take advantage of the opportunities in front of you, because I didn’t have these same opportunities.”