Trusting children’s inner artist: Hartsbrook School’s Creativity Camp launches inaugural season


For the Gazette

Published: 07-19-2023 2:01 PM

Senna Kahn, a rising third grader at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley, claims that when she draws she doesn’t “usually make things, I just let my hands guide me.”

She reported this while coloring in a mandala that she had created under the guidance of Melissa Renzi, the leader of Hartsbrook’s Creativity Camp. When asked about why she choose to make her mandala so colorful, full of varying shapes, shades, and pictures, Senna said that she “just like[s] beautiful things that are art, or plants, or animals.”

The Creativity Camp is certainly the right environment for such inspiration, as the Hartsbrook School is settled on farmland, surrounded by rolling hills and serving as the home to goats, pigs, chickens, and more. The camp itself is held in the art room designated for high school-age students. Lining the walls are clay busts, portraits of students, professional paintings, and, of course, the many mandalas that the students at the Creativity Camp had been working on.

The camp began with a session titled “Mandala Magic” that took place June 26-30. The next session, “Artful Animals,” ran July 10-14 and incorporated daily interactions between the children who are enrolled and the farm animals that live on Hartsbrook’s property.

“Tinkering Treasures” will run July 17-21, when children will be making creations from repurposed treasures. For instance, Renzi described a creation that her daughter, a student at the Hartsbrook School, had crafted; it was titled the “Idea Machine,” and consisted of an old Starbucks cup and a toilet paper roll. Melissa stated that, during this particular week, she hopes to encourage the children to make “something out of nothing.” From July 24 to 28, the session will be titled “Blissful Bookmaking,” and finally, Renzi will hold the last session, called “Playful Paper Mache,” from July 31 to Aug. 4.

The Hartsbrook School was founded by a group of parents in South Amherst, including Olivia and Alexander Drier. Originally, the school consisted of one teacher and a handful of kindergarteners. Since then, Hartsbrook has acquired a 54-acre campus in Hadley and 260 students up 18 years of age. The Hartsbrook School is not only unique because of its pastoral setting but also because of its alternative education philosophy. The school employs the Waldorf method, an education model founded in the early 20th century by Rudolf Steiner. This model incorporates the arts in every aspect of teaching. In this way, Melissa Renzi’s Creativity Camp is a perfect fit for the Hartsbrook School’s expanding summer camp program.

The Hartsbrook School offers an annual farm camp for children ages 4 to 11, as well as a fiddle camp, bilingual theatre camp, and a classical drawing camp for older students. This year is the first installation of the Creativity Camp at Hartsbrook, but it is in no way Renzi’s first time leading art workshops. As the story goes, she was talking with a fellow parent and staff member at Hartsbrook one morning last October after dropping her kids off at school when she mentioned that she was thinking about leading a creativity workshop for adults. The parent instead asked if she would be willing to lead a workshop as a part of Hartsbrook’s summer program, and Renzi immediately agreed, noting she was thrilled to get involved as “community is such a big part of Hartsbrook.”

Renzi has been living in western Massachusetts for the past few years, and for nearly two decades before that, in Los Angeles. During the early 2000s, she worked as an apprentice to well-known papier mache artist Gemma Taccogna. This relationship came about in an almost meet-cute style when Renzi was working on an art installation for Loyola Marymount University in her garage. The piece, which was done on commission, consisted of a layer of plexiglass on top of a piece of wood. Inscribed between the glass and the wood were quotes from the writings of the English professors at Loyola Marymount.

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One of the quotes read “You, come closer, I want to tell you something,” and as the viewer approached, they could see the other words of the professors. One day, a neighbor who happened to be Taccogna’s daughter stopped by to check out Renzi’s piece, and minutes later brought her 79-year-old mother down to see.

“That’s the moment my whole life changed,” Renzi said.

Tacoggna encouraged Renzi to lead creativity workshops out of her home, just as she had been doing for many years and instructed Renzi to “trust that every single person is creative.” A large part of Tacoggna’s personal philosophy, as Renzi described it, consists of pushing the participants of any workshop, whether they be eight or 80 years old, to “connect with their inner creativity.” This is practiced in the workshops by regularly ringing a Tibetan bell, drawing with one’s eyes closed, and taking a moment before drawing for quiet. Though these practices are used in the Creativity Camp, Renzi stated that children do not struggle to connect with their innate creativity. While the focus of her adult workshops often revolves around reminding older participants of their inner artist, the focus of her workshops with children is “preserving that knowing [of one’s creativity], and holding space for it.”

According to Renzi, Tacoggna referred to her beliefs as a “creative way of life.” For Renzi, her first few years as a parent were wholly consumed by caregiving, so “remembering the creative way of life reminds me to develop all parts of myself,” she said. Though Tacoggna died only a few years after Renzi came into her life, she continues to use the methods she learned from Tacoggna even now.

When Renzi was developing the themes for Hartsbrook’s Creativity Camp, she chose to center the first week around mandalas because the “circle is the purest form that there is.” Additionally, she wanted to leave space for the children to try out other projects. One student, Oliver Watkins, a rising fourth grader, created a mandala that featured distinct lines and geometric patterns. For Oliver, this method of expression felt more genuine, as he claimed that he doesn’t “usually draw things, but I make lines with patterns.” Two other students decided to make their mandalas look like eyeballs, creating an entire narrative about what would happen to a person who looked into their mandala — in short, this person would turn to stone. Though the concept of a mandala may appear limiting at first, the students at the Creativity Camp proved that this form can be bent, molded, and remade to represent boundless ideas.