Community through Art

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Helena in front of her own artwork

Helena Wikland Skårbratt is a the proud founder of ART4U, an art school for people who not only want to learn the basics of art, but explore their creativity and take responsibility of their growth as an artist.

Helena Wikland Skårbratt is the proud founder of ART4U, an art school for people who not only want to learn the basics of art, but also explore their creativity and take responsibility of their growth as an artist.

Helena is a vegetarian Swede, who has never had a driver’s license. She lives in a house painted in hot pink and neon green and dresses in attire some would call eccentric. Helena does not match one’s stereotypical idea of the reserved and strict Swedish person. This is what makes her perfect to be a successful art teacher and business owner.

Helena attended high school in the United States but declined a scholarship to go to art school there because she did not want to “shave her legs.” She decided to move back to Sweden where she did not paint again until she was 45 years old.

A few years ago, Helena was in a bad car accident that caused brain damage and the doctors declared that she would never be able to work again. To that Helena responded with a middle finger in the air and proved everyone wrong by getting back on her feet.

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Helena behind the art school’s sign

Helena founded this art school in 1999, with a dream of having around 30 students from aged from 6 to 12 years old. Now she gets over 160 students a semester, with ages ranging from 5 to 30 years old. All people are welcome, whether they are students, aspiring artists, or mentally handicapped citizens with disabilities such as Down syndrome and Autism. Helena integrates everyone into the class, not allowing parental guidance or special supervision, claiming that it will inhibit their creativity.

In order to get back on her feet, Helena’s husband employed her, giving her 1-2 hour shifts a week and eventually Helena earned the money to start up her own art school. In the beginning, she used recycled art materials in order to stretch her finances.

Now Helena is able to afford new art materials with the funds from the tuition that the students pay in order to attend her classes, as well as the workshops she does with well-known companies exclusively in Sweden.

The workshops involve team building exercises, such as self-portraits or working on a team painting of about three meters by six meters. Helena has worked with companies such as Volvo, Saab, Ericcson, and many more.
“I do painting activities to loosen them up and to see how they cooperate with one another.”

The companies can reach her by her website, which is temporarily down because she forgot to pay the bill, “though it feels quite good,” she says. The companies get to choose what activity they want to do for their workshop, but the most popular choice is the self-portraits.

The students are able to partake in all different types of forms of art. “We do everything, more or less, except water colour. I don’t like water colour.”

The tuition that the students pay includes all of the materials and they are allowed to use as much as they need. Some use more than their tuition cost and some use less, “but it all comes out in the wash in the end.”

In the beginning, Helena teaches them the basics of art. Not everyone is familiar with the basics and it is important that they learn.

For example, “When I went to that art school, I didn’t know that the turpentine was a paint thinner, I just used it to clean the brush. The teacher always said to me ‘oh you are a thick painter, it will be a long time until it dries.’ It took me two and a half years to realize this because no one told me.”

After the kids learn the basics, Helena has them do projects like “create your own Mona Lisa.” She does this because she wants to show them how many ways one can see a picture and that nothing is considered wrong.

One of Helena’s mottos is “to learn by lust. If you love horses, then draw and paint horses for one semester, then I can get them to try and paint a cat or something else. When you are sure of yourself you want to test new things.”

Helena keeps a very free classroom with limited rules, but one of her main rules is no bullying. If she catches a student bullying another, she pulls them aside and tells them they have one week to decide if they want to continue in her class. If they don’t show up next week she refunds the money, but requires the student explain to their parent why the tuition was refunded. According to Helena, these kids stay the longest.

Some of the students stay for one semester and some stay for years. Many of Helena’s students end up volunteering for her and eventually work for her, teaching the classes with her or travelling with her to the workshops she holds with companies around Sweden.

Helena likes employing her students because it gives them something to put on their Curriculum Vitae, which she feels is extremely important.

A few years ago, Helena lost her husband to cancer, but before he died she promised him she would never “work her ass off.”

Helena made it very clear she wants to live life to the fullest. She excitedly elucidates to me, “I will enjoy my life, and that is exactly what I am doing. I’m a spoiled person because I don’t have to work that much, but I still choose to work all of the time.”

According to Helena, there is nothing else in the area that does what she does. While there are other art schools with cheaper tuition, she has the most students every semester. She feels that it is because “most of the students like the freedom, and that they get to take the responsibility of their progress.”

Helena only uses red, yellow, and blue paint at her school, having the students make their own colors. “In the beginning everything looks brown, or they don’t mix it at all, but it doesn’t matter because they learn,” she says as she chuckles thinking about the early works done by her students.

 

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Helena displaying student artwork in her home

The art school is funded solely by tuition but Helena makes most of her money from the workshops. She does not want anything to do with other people; she wants her business to be funded and run independently, like it has been the past 17 years.

At the end of every semester, Helena holds an exhibition to show all of the students work. She says it’s a great way to build their confidence and display their talent, because many of her students are not athletes and do not have many friends. This is a way to make them feel proud of themselves, which is her ultimate goal as a teacher. It takes her roughly 40 hours to set up all of the students’ artwork.

She holds the exhibitions in her studio, where she bakes kanel-brulle, a traditional Swedish cinnamon roll, and makes coffee for all of the artists and the people who come to view the work.

Helena is lucky because she is a person who loves what she does and is able to give back to her community and enrich the lives of many.

Helena’s advice to any aspiring artists out there is this: “If you have something in between your ears you can use, try to make painting and crafts as hobby, because you don’t get to be a better artist if you’re hungry.”

 

 

 

 

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