East Falls-based nonprofit uses discarded paint chips to create art in under-funded classrooms

A mosaic self-portrait. (Pamela Forsythe/for NewsWorks)

A mosaic self-portrait. (Pamela Forsythe/for NewsWorks)

The next time you grab a handful of color cards for a painting project, think of Barbara Chandler Allen of Fresh Artists, the East Falls nonprofit that empowers children through art. Allen once spent five hours in a home center, following customers to see what they did with paint chips of shoreline green, pink bliss, and wild porcini.

She was doing research.

Resourcefulness + Generosity = Art

Allen’s expedition led to the Chip Kit, which delivers a year’s worth of art supplies to classrooms in a standard postal box. It’s just one of the innovative programs developed by Fresh Artists, the brainchild of Allen, a museum administrator by trade, and her son Roger, a designer, to support art education in impoverished public schools.

Chip Kit was inspired by an art teacher’s creative re-use of the colorful sample cards. With assistance from Behr Paint, which offers up millions of old color cards, the program provides materials and lesson plans at little or no cost to any teacher who just asks. In addition to seeding creativity, Chip Kits dramatically reduce landfill waste.

A problem presents opportunity

Allen and her son founded Fresh Artists in 2008. It grew out of a tricky assignment she’d been given two years earlier: providing art for the School District of Philadelphia headquarters on a budget of zero.

“Roger solved the problem with one word,” she recalled, “He said, ‘Digital.'” Which meant, fill the cavernous space with large, digitized copies of art mounted on foam board. Student work was readily available and could be had by asking their permission. Once the reproductions were installed, reaction was immediate, Allen said. “People saw them and wanted to buy them.”

Barbara and Roger quickly recognized the potential of the idea they’d stumbled upon, and Fresh Artists was born. What separates the organization, which has grown to a staff of five and accessioned 1,200 works from 1,100 children across 40 states, is the way it raises funds for art in schools: With each child’s permission, a single copy is produced and included in the Fresh Artists collection, from which businesses, corporations, universities, and others can purchase art for their public spaces. Proceeds provide supplies like oil crayons and tempera paint, as well as innovative programming to schools in which at least 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Almost all of the artists come from schools meeting those qualifications, too.

Imitating the public media model

“The art isn’t framed, it’s not glazed, it’s not signed or numbered,” Allen emphasized. “It’s a poster. We used the WHYY model, giving a token keepsake in exchange for a generous donation. The child gets no money, but retains the original art and copyright.”

Each work is labeled with the name and age of the artist, who also receives two sketchpads and boxes of oil crayons — one to keep, one to give to a friend. The young artist becomes a philanthropist to children like herself, what Allen calls “lateral philanthropy.”

Besides its funding model, Fresh Artists is unique for the quiet advocacy provided by the large, colorful works, a subconscious statement to passers-by of the potential residing in neighborhoods and schools that are often dismissed. Silently looming in lobbies and boardrooms, the bold creations are a subtle reminder.

Repurposing millions of samples

Fresh Artists works closely with art teachers, reviewing requests, offering professional development, and serving as an exchange for ideas like that of Robin Miller of Chestnut Hill’s Jenks Academy of the Arts and Sciences, who conceived of using paint chips in her classroom. Allen saw potential in the idea, and wondered how paint chips were used and discarded — which led to her excursion to the home center. Eventually, she connected with Behr Paint.

Behr agreed to save discontinued or misprinted color cards, and recently, company volunteers renovated a large room in the East Falls mill complex where Fresh Artists is headquartered. Called a collaboratory, the room is where Chip Kits, which can be mailed anywhere in the United States are assembled. According to Program Manager Desiree Bender, who recently prepared 200 kits with a team of volunteers, each one has “enough obsolete paint color chips to stuff a large bread box. One kit supplies 150 kids for a year — you only use two or three cards per project.”

Those 200 completed kits didn’t make a dent in what Behr has collected for Fresh Artists. Fifty palettes holding perhaps 20 million chips are waiting to be sorted in the company’s Allentown distribution center. 

An exhibit of Fresh Artists works is on view through August on the concourse level of the Comcast Center, 1701 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19103

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