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Boxy Robots dripping with wet paint welcomed me to The Art Room, a fine arts school for children ages 3 and up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The boxy inventions — assemblages of cups, bottle caps and other recycled materials — are now free from their maker’s little hands and stand proud and beautiful.

The art teacher, Leigh Holliday, cleans up from her last class, cheerfully wiping paint from the table. As an artist and instructor of young children, Holliday values exploration and process over finished product, but can’t deny that her students do create some amazing work.

Holliday believes children are intrinsically curious and drawn to exploration. Working with different materials in an open, nurturing environment allows them to expand their unique perspective of the world.

“Children experience mental, physical and tactile stimulation while they create, which is why art is essential to their development,” Holliday explains. “When they are busy in The Art Room, they have the flexibility to exercise their imaginations and the freedom to experiment, which boosts confidence and creativity.”

When the children are busy in The Art Room, they have the flexibility to exercise their imaginations and the freedom to experiment, which boosts confidence and creativity. While Holliday values introspective quiet time in her studio — which she calls “painting from the heart” — she also encourages peer interaction and support as an open outlet to connect art and life.

Holliday believes that art is an invaluable tool in helping kids develop a strong sense of self. A black-and-white photo hanging on the wall in a large oval frame captures a young artist donned in a paint-splattered smock in front of her work. The little girl in the photo is Holliday at 3 years old. It was her love of art — and kids — that helped her make several important decisions that ultimately shaped her life and put her in a position to inspire others with her artistic talent.

Opening a fine arts school for children was inevitable for Holliday, but her road to The Art Room had a few detours.

Growing up as the only child of a single mother in Washington DC, she enjoyed a childhood filled with friends and activities, including ballet and art classes.

“I always loved art, but as a kid, I never really thought about what I wanted to do in life,” she remembers. Holliday and her mother decided she would study psychology at Beloit College in Wisconsin, as she had always been a good listener and friend, and enjoyed being with people.

While there, Holliday spent most of her time painting and drawing, and pursued other creative interests, like ceramics and photography, while her psychology books began to gather dust. By the end of her first year, Holliday had created an impressive art portfolio, which led to a pivotal decision in her life.

Without telling anyone, Holliday organized her portfolio and applied to the Art Institute of Chicago and Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington. Both schools accepted her, and she shared her intention to attend art school with her friends and family.

Concerned about her daughter’s financial security and future as an artist, her mother did not support her decision, but Holliday followed her heart and left Beloit for Corcoran.

During Holliday’s junior year, she majored in mixed-media sculpture. Inspired by New York artist Joseph Cornell, she focused on assemblage, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

In September 1996, Holliday and a friend, whom she had nannied with during college, decided to combine their love of kids and art, and started a children’s art school in a small, converted garage in Washington. Named Fingers at Play, the school began with a single student, but after a year and a half, expanded into a commercial space. Holliday enjoyed seven successful years at Fingers At Play — which is still open and thriving today — before deciding to follow her heart once again. This time, she left for New York with the man with whom she had fallen in love.

For years, she worked in the banking industry and, later, with a real estate developer, but Holliday felt she had lost her positive spirit and creative energy.

“I thought the stress of my last job was going to kill me. I was losing myself, but it was the push I needed. It was time to take a risk.”

This low point in her life became another critical turning point, which led Holliday back to her passion for children and art.

Holliday’s fiance, Justin, encouraged her to open another art school. While taking a walk in Bay Ridge, she passed a vacant storefront for rent just a few blocks away from her apartment. She saw this as a good omen, and took a leap of faith again.

Using the same model as Fingers At Play, Holliday opened The Art Room in June of 2010 to nurture kids’ natural love and need for artistic expression.

Holliday, 38, is currently enjoying the fruits of her labor. The corporate world is behind her, although she says she appreciates the lessons she learned from the experience. Now, she is free to focus on her true passion: introducing young people to art.

Holliday’s personal journey from a young, messy painter to a successful artist, teacher and business owner is a testament to how art can empower someone to make great changes. Allow your children’s ideas and interests to inspire them. By meeting kids where they are, instead of where you want them to be, you will help them to develop richer, more meaningful life experiences.

By the time my interview is over, the robot sculptures have dried and Leigh enthusiastically prepares to display them in the window of The Art Room. She smiles, recalling the artists and their creative experiences. She describes a little girl who had her tongue out, totally immersed in working with glue. Her hands were covered with it. She was in heaven. “That’s what it’s all about,” Leigh says, “losing yourself in a lot of messy fun.”

The Art Room [8710 Third Ave. in Bay Ridge, (347) 560-6572].

Laura Varoscak-DeInnocentiis is an educator and freelance writer. Her articles appear regularly in Brooklyn Family Magazine and have won editorial awards from Parenting Publications of America. She holds master’s degrees in writing, education and psychology. Varoscak-DeInnocentiis lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and is the proud mom of two sons, Henry and Charlie.

Holliday’s advice for parents

Say “yes” to the mess: As a teacher, Holliday often observes parents who worry too much about the messiness of art. They do not allow art projects at home, which can hinder kids’ creativity, even when they are in a place where splattering paint all over the table is acceptable.

While you do not want your little one painting on your leather couch or kneading clay into your carpet, there are ways to safeguard your home against damage. And cleaning the kids is as easy as turning on the shower. Allow children to cover their hands in glue and paint their bodies with washable, non-toxic paints. Encouraging unbridled, creative expression is one of the most precious gifts a parent can give.

Appreciate your child’s work “as is”: When it comes to making art, there is no right or wrong way. It is common for adults to point out “mistakes” in their children’s art work: “The sky is blue, not green.” “You made the hands way too big.” “You forgot to add a tail.”

This kind of criticism not only disrupts the creative process, but can also discourage kids from wanting to work on art projects altogether. Young people are constantly constructing new ways of viewing themselves and the world around them. Embrace their uniqueness and individuality. By judging their works, you are criticizing them, which can be detrimental to their self-esteem and personal growth.

Emphasize process, not product: Holliday says she notices some parents caring too much about the finished product, instead of appreciating the process behind the creative work. The greatest rewards in the studio come when children freely experiment and discover new ways of interacting with the materials without getting distracted by how the end result will turn out. Concentrating too much on the product takes away from the value of working in the moment and experiencing the media.

Holliday stresses a process-oriented perspective. She encourages students to slow down and focus on the step on which they are working, instead of impatiently jumping to what comes next.

Value art: As a parent, it’s important to show your child your enthusiasm for art. Take your kids to museums, and discuss the art you see. Learn about different artists together. Engage in conversations about how you and your kids see the world, and respect each other’s differences.

Set aside time to do art projects together — such as taking a walk with a few pieces of chalk and drawing pictures on the sidewalk. Be open to different ideas and enjoy the process. Get messy and have fun. Invite friends over for an art party. Sign up for an art class. Teach children that art is an important part of life by helping them to experience it firsthand.

Updated 4:30 pm, July 9, 2018
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