Smile Politely

At Prism Studios, art is for everyone

By introducing a prism into your view, you separate white light into a spectrum of colors. You may also clarify or complicate your perspective. Prism Studios, the new fem-owned, queer-owned, arts initiative with a focus on inclusion, diversity, and creativity, does both. Prism, and the artists who founded it, are a refreshing mix of revolution and refuge, part Bob Ross, part lowbrow pop surrealism. Like the object from which they take their name, they turn fear of the blank canvas into an explosion of color and self-expression. But it is one thing to say that art is for everyone, and another to make it so. There are many real-life obstacles facing new or returning artists (material costs, access to a space and an instructor, COVID concerns). Prism offers solutions for these, along with the deeper emotional and attitudinal obstacles that can keep people from the canvas.

While Prism Studios counts the Independent Media Center as its homebase (they recently held their open house event there), their mission is all about bringing the art experience to you.  And wherever they go, they bring with them all of the necessary ingredients to serve up a safe space and a satisfying creative encounter. Plus, they’ll bring everything you need, set it up, show you how to use it, and clean it all up when you’re done. 

Though I first met co-owner Katye Newhouse online, Prism’s recent open house and Pride booth allowed me to get to know Newhouse, along with co-owner Travis McNeese and co-founder Law Welle. I observed them in action and can honestly say they walk the talk and speak and act from a place of compassion, inclusion, and personal experience. In other words, they are the real deal. After the dust settled from these back-to-back events, Newhouse took the time to dive a bit deeper into Prism Studio’s inspiration, mission, and its impact on members of the local LGBTQIA+ community, BIPOC, and anyone who has allowed fear and self-consciousness to keep them experiencing the fun and healing of painting.

Smile Politely: What inspired the creation of Prism Studios?

Katye Newhouse: The less than inspiring answer is simply that I was unfulfilled in my profession. Not very exciting, but also a truth that I think many of us understand and have experienced. I’ve been an artist most of my life, but was only really ever presented with graphic design as a valid career path for an artist who wanted to be able to eat.  Prism really just…came to me. It was like a moment of clarity when I realized that this was not only something that I could have, it was something I could offer others as well. A place to be free to create, to make mistakes, and to realize that may those mistakes aren’t actually mistakes at all. It’s all very Bob Ross, but it’s also true. It took me a lot of therapy and a lot of community support to finally let myself love my own art despite, or even because, it came from me. That’s something that I realized that I wanted to help people with.  It may sound small, but taking pride in your work really is a learned skill that can be absolutely life changing.

SP: What would you most like people to know about what Prism Studios offers?

Newhouse: First and foremost, we want people to know that we offer safety.  A place where you can feel out your skills and what works for you without having to worry about being judged or ridiculed. We may not have the power to protect people out in the world, but when you’re with us you matter. Your story matters. Your experiences and differences matter to us, truly, on a personal level. By sharing our skills and our experiences we help each other to grow and to appreciate more beauty in more ways than we could before and that kind of community is important at Prism.

Photo by Debra Domal.

From a services standpoint, one of the fun things about being a ‘baby business’ is that we have the room to evolve and grow into what our community needs us to be. Do you need an environment to work on your own original content?  We’ve got you. Looking to relax and follow along with an instructor? We’ve got you? Private lessons? Let’s discuss what works best for us both and make something happen!  COVID have you uncomfortable in crowds?  Call your best friends over that you feel safe with and we’ll come to your home so you don’t have to feel unsafe. We have the supplies, techniques, and a passion to bring art to everyone who wants it, the rest is just working out the details and we’re ALWAYS open to new ideas!

SP: How do you see Prism Studios evolving over the next few years?

Newhouse: We’re really hoping to eventually work our way up to a physical space so that we can have a solid home base that people can know and easily find.  Our current focus is specifically acrylic painting, but we have some really wonderful artists who work in mixed media or other mediums that we want to expose people to. And not just different mediums.  It’s our hope to partner with other local artists, in particular queer and BIPOC artists, to bring not only a diversity of medium and style, but also an entirely different cultural approach to art, what art means, and roles it plays in our lives.

SP: What’s a typical (if there is such a thing) Prism Studios event like?

Newhouse: We try to make sure that the tone and experience we provide at our events is varied and made clear based on the event. Since not all people thrive in the same environment, we really want to work with our clients directly to plan or provide an event that is going to suit their needs. So for one class we may talk more about technique and be more like a traditionally structured class, while our next event may be full of music, snacks, laughter and chitchat while we create. But we always make it clear what people can expect from each event so that no one gets blindsided. The one thing I would say that we do work to bring across all of our events is a positive based approach to art. We believe in building on our strengths and innate skills in a positive and wholesome way, rather than focusing on perceived weaknesses.

SP: What do you most hope that people get out of a Prism Studios experience?

Newhouse: Joy and community. It’s really that simple. If you aren’t having fun, then we aren’t providing you with what you need and that just won’t do for us. This world is scary, and stressful, and hard, and judgmental. And it’s so so easy to feel alone and uninspired. If people can join us and find even a few hours of joy, peace, or community, then we’ve been successful.

SP: From what I’ve read on your website and brochures, you believe in “an art for everybody” approach.” What brought you and the other founders to this mission?

Newhouse: The best part about art, is that there is literally art for everyone. Unfortunately there is an idea that gets perpetuated that art only looks a certain way and that if you can’t achieve that narrow definition then you are just bad at art. And sadly that idea is usually rooted very specifically in western and European art. And even then, generally only within a few specific timeframes. And while that art is beautiful and valuable, it’s simply not the only standard by which art could, or should be judged and it’s important to us that we recognize that. Of our current three artists on staff you have three very distinct styles as well as approaches and we want people to have the chance to see that not one of those approaches is better than the other, it’s simply about finding what works for you. What makes you feel creative, and powerful.  What moves you.  You can’t compare Da Vinci, to Van Gogh, to Picasso, to Keith Haring. Their approaches and techniques all vary too much to be able to do that, so would should any of our artists compare themselves to another?   

Photo by Debra Domal.

Art can also be a very expensive hobby and often requires things that not everyone has control over such as adequate ventilation or storage space. If I’m being perfectly honest, in my own private painting, I only just in the last two years starting springing for the student grade brushes and paints. Prior to that I worked almost entirely with craft paints because they only cost about $1 at most. Even for student grade paint you are usually looking at $4-$5 per tube of paint. If you multiply that by even a fairly small number of colors with the intent to mix your colors, add in the cost of brushes, canvases, etc… and you can see how expensive it can become and fairly quickly. That’s just not accessible for most people and especially for those just starting out who are still exploring what works for them or are still discovering how passionate they are about it.

SP: What impact does art-making have for you and for your clients?

Newhouse: Self expression and communication. Not everything can be put into clear words all of the time. Art widens that channel of communication to allow people to express themselves in new ways that can sometimes be easier than verbal cues.

Photo from the Prism Studios Facebook page.

SP: Prism exists at the intersection between “art for all” and queer-friendly environment. There’s a lot of power in this, for expression, and healing, and exploring identity. What are your thoughts on that? How has the local queer community responded so far?

Newhouse: It has been such an overwhelming and beautiful response.  It’s a little funny because when we started Prism it wasn’t something where we all sat down and said “We have to make sure this is queer-friendly” specifically. More that we came together to create a safe artistic space for our community where there are no expectations aside from love and support. It just happened to be that all of the founders are queer and so providing a space where queer and trans folx could express themselves in whatever way was most authentic for them was just a given. We talk about it, however, because while it’s just natural to us, LGBTQIA+ folx are still targeted for simply being who we are, and so it’s important to us that people know that if they come to us, they will be safe. Also, the queer community is so full of talented, inspiring, fun, loving people who have experienced in a very visceral way, the process of finding yourself, what works for you, what bring you joy and comfort and fulfills your needs. It can be a really traumatic process, but it’s also been my experience that once you realize you can survive that, that you can do literally anything.

Photo from Prism Studios Facebook page.

Pridefest was a part of our official launch, and for me it was doubly special because it was also my first Pride. I had always been too afraid to go alone. In particular, being straight passing I always feared that I wasn’t queer enough. That I might be somehow taking away from others who for whom the process was more noticeably traumatic or painful than mine.  Silly fears, but I had them.  The thing about the queer community, and especially in Champaign Urbana, is that so so many of us have this exact same story. The same fear of authenticity and the same feelings of imposter syndrome. But in the queer community, like in art, I can promise you that you are enough and that’s really where we want to live at Prism.  In the knowledge that we, as our most authentic selves with our most innate skills whatever they may be is enough.

SP: What inspires you as an artist?

Newhouse: I’m personally so inspired by the human body. There is nothing more beautiful to me than just people, as they are, in all their glory. The dichotomy of strength and fragility of ourselves. The stunning variation of humans, in color, in shape, in movement. It’s just really beautiful to me. Color is probably my second biggest inspiration. I honestly have nothing but envy and respect for the artists out there who create abstract art. The ability to use nothing but color, line, and movement to create or enhance emotion without any tangible items to connect to is really amazing to me.

SP: What advice do you offer to beginning or returning painters?

Newhouse: Just do it. Do it until it feels right. If it doesn’t, then change it, cover it, play with it. Do anything but sit and stare at a blank canvas. I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I learned to do what I do, but in all honestly it’s just been a simple journey of letting myself get messy and letting it happen. It doesn’t have to be perfect, because frankly perfect doesn’t exist so just get color on the canvas and let it inspire you along the way. There’s no consequences here for changing your mind and it’s important that people know that even the most famous painters have work hanging in galleries that we know have corrections made by the artist or even that they had started one thing and covered it up with something else entirely after they didn’t like where it was going. Don’t judge the process by the end result alone because that can be really discouraging. It’s so important to find a way to love the process of creating art because that’s where the really exciting, creative, joyous things live.

Photo by Debra Domal.

SP: What’s coming up this fall and winter for Prism Studios?

Newhouse: So much! We’re working with a few local businesses to develop events and workshops geared toward different needs in our community. We’re hoping to start offering at least bi-monthly Open Paint (where you can come in and work on anything you like with out resources and knowledge) as well as several pre-structured classes.We’ve also begun private parties which we anticipate to be a lot of fun especially as the weather turns colder and people feel more inclined to stay indoors. We’re also rolling out some private lesson options that are going to be really customizable based on what the client wants to work on.

Learn more about Prism Studios on their website, or follow them on Facebook or Instagram

Top photo by Debra Domal.

Arts Editor

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