Hemispheres offers free art training to Sacramento children
By the time Cailín Pulskamp arrives home from work, she’s ready to be done. Like many single parents, she works long hours for limited pay. Her 14-year-old daughter, Fíona, also puts in long days at school and doing homework. The two would seem to have little time or resources left for creative outlets, even though the experts say the arts are important to developing young minds.
But, in the last few months, their tiresome schedule has changed drastically. Instead of having few activities to do outside of school, Fíona has found a channel for all of her artistic energy. She can improve her dancing and learn how to develop her love of photography without denting the family budget.
The Pulskamps have found a program that fits into their schedules and financial constraints. Through it, Fíona can enroll in dance, photography and art classes taught by professionals for free, with just a minimal materials fee. The classes are offered at Hemispheres Art Academy, at 16th and N streets in Sacramento, within walking distance of their home.
On a recent special assignment with the class, Fíona and her mother joined six other students on a trek around Old Sacramento with the captivating Bill Mahon, a professional photographer and teacher of this session’s Photography-Beginning Lighting class. As the night moved on, one could see both teacher and student learning, growing and developing something special.
The night’s class began as usual. Students arrived, and some did homework while others chatted about the past week’s events. When all had arrived, they huddled around Mahon or “Mr. Bill,” as he explained what he had planned for the special assignment of the night. The class would be walking through Capital City Park to Old Sac to explore the many uses of light and timing in photography.
The students walked quickly to their first location, laughing and infecting Mahon with their laughter at burping games and silly jokes. Mahon’s humor and good-natured personality blend perfectly with his ability to instruct a rambunctious group in a public setting.
“Mr. Bill is a skilled photographer and a skilled teacher,” said one eighth-grader. “It sounds corny, but I really learn a lot from him, about photography and about life.”
As a resident of Sacramento for 12 years, Mahon has been an independent contractor through the successful photography business he runs out of his home. His clients have included Mervyns, Sega Genesis, Amtrak, Sutter Health, Holiday Inn and Lands End. A little more than a year ago, Farrell Scott, the executive director of Hemispheres, came to observe a commercial shoot and became interested in the possibility of Mahon teaching.
“I was also looking for teaching work at the time, so it fit like a glove,” Mahon said. “It was ironic how it worked out, and I guess it was just supposed to be.”
At different locations, his students talk and giggle while learning important skills such as timed exposures, accounting for motion, depth of field, visualization and understanding the basic photography equipment.
“I have spent 17 years learning what I’m allowing them to scrape the surface of for free,” Mahon said.
Free is the key to Hemispheres. Nowhere else in the Sacramento area can seventh-graders through 12th-graders take classes in painting, design, figure drawing, photography, guitar, dance, theater and much more without registration or class fees.
In addition to the exceptionally low cost—just the cost of materials—professionals are doing the teaching. Many instructors have local galleries and studios and have studied and worked in the area for years. Like Mahon, they provide their expertise to the youth of Sacramento because they know the value that visual and performing arts can bring to a person’s life.
Robert King Fong created the academy because of a lack of focus on the arts in local schools. A local attorney and school-board member, Fong conceived Hemispheres Arts Academy in 2001. He developed the academy as a nonprofit and secured a partnership with Sacramento County Unified School District. The district’s historic building at 16th and N streets was leased to the academy, and the idea became a reality.
At that same time, Hemispheres was awarded the George J. Maloof Sr. Community Cup, which provided a one-time $100,000 donation. Then, in December 2001, Scott was hired as the full-time executive director. A board of directors was put together, and the program took off running in March of 2002.
Fong chairs the eight-member board that pilots Hemispheres. The board is involved in program development and fund-raising. Scott, a professional photographer and graphic designer, also has a history in the nonprofit world.
“Without Farrell and the board, we would not be able to function,” said Ramona Russell, Hemispheres’ communications coordinator. “This place is here because of the hard work of so many and continues to grow with their support and dedication.”
In addition to the weeknight classes, Hemispheres also provides one-day family workshops with themes including The Sound of Painting, Mosaic Design and Exploring Watercolor. Master workshops are being developed to allow advanced students the opportunity to spend a day with master artists in the students’ elected disciplines.
The academy regularly participates in the second-Saturday art walk in Sacramento. The Tower Theatre on Broadway is displaying student works, and the academy also is holding art auctions and sales to benefit the organization.
“There is so much that this academy can do for Sacramento youth and the community as a whole,” Russell said. “These kids are so excited to be here. And, when people in the community find out about us, they say, ‘Why didn’t we know about this three months ago?’ The building is so large, and we have the potential to do so much.”
Students are encouraged to express themselves in a structured, but enjoyable environment that is leading many students like Fíona down a road of creativity. Caílin, Fíona’s mother, said, “For this age group, it is so appropriate and great for them to express themselves in such a productive way. It fits in nicely to our schedule, and it provides her a freedom that is priceless.”
Other students say they’ll continue to take Hemispheres classes as long as they can. “This is my third class,” said a freshman student, “and I would encourage it to others because the instructors are nice, and they can give you all of the attention that you need. They help me meet goals I never thought I could meet.”
On Mahon’s recent outing with his class, he shouted to the students, as they were finishing up the last shot, “Anybody learning anything?” A booming “Yes!” filled the street. Mahon knows his students’ strengths and weaknesses and enjoys seeing their work progress.
“These kids really don’t understand that what they have here is a gold mine,” he said. “Even college students don’t get this kind of attention, and, at the same time, it is free. We have no closed doors here and want everyone to come and feel free and open no matter what position they are in.”
“I want to be here,” said a seventh-grader with a grin across his face. “It is more fun than being at home, school or playing with my friends because here I can do it all. I am learning how to take cool pictures, and I have fun and friends, too.”
As Mahon’s class ended, the students walked back to the building still excited about the evening’s events. The Pulskamps headed home from another demanding day. Yet, it was an affordable day, a successful day and a creative day in which another Sacramentan developed a fresh love of the arts.