Connie Whitlock has a saying: “Everyone deserves to experience art.”
And, as the director of the WHAM Community Arts Center in Surprise, she has dedicated herself to making sure that everyone can.
When Whitlock and her husband retired to Sun City Grand in 1999, she didn’t know what to do with all her free time. She wasn’t the coffee klatch type, so she tried various jobs, but nothing felt right.
Then, one day, Whitlock saw a flier for the clay arts club. She’d studied art in college, before she got busy with work and family. Why not try again?
On her first visit, she sat down at a potter’s wheel.
“And that was it!” Whitlock remembered.
Suddenly, she was in the studio five days a week. She sought classes with well-known potters and anyone else she could find. She made some sales and, eventually, got some commissions.
By 2006, Whitlock was a professional artist. But even as she enjoyed her newly unleashed creativity, she wondered why there weren’t more opportunities for West Valley residents to come together over art.
“I started thinking that there are lots of people who’d love to have access to art, but there wasn’t any organized art center here at the time.”
Drawing on her former experience in business management, Whitlock decided to start her own club, which she envisioned as a way for artists to meet, mingle, and learn together — all ages, all levels, all backgrounds, all media.
A self-described “old hippie,” she named the club the “What’s Happen’n Art Movement,” choosing the name to indicate that the organization would always be changing.
From brainchild to building
Soon after she posted the first fliers, Whitlock discovered she was right: Other people wanted art, too. The club grew quickly, with artists from a variety of fields coming together for organized classes and lectures. They came from Surprise, Peoria, Glendale, Litchfield Park and beyond. They met at her house. They met at other people’s houses. Once, for an especially big workshop, they rented a hotel room.
Then, five years ago, things really started moving.
In 2012, Whitlock was commissioned to create an artwork for the new Adelante Healthcare clinic in Surprise.
As she worked, Whitlock got another idea.
What, she asked Adelante, were they planning to do with the empty clinic on Dysart Road?
“They said they’d leased it from the city until 2015. So I asked if I could use it,” she recalled. “And they said yes!”
And wham, just like that, the non-profit, volunteer-run organization had 8,500 square feet of space — all for art.
The conversion from community health clinic to community arts center wasn’t even that complicated.
Except for removing a few walls in the front area to make a gallery, most of the building required little renovation. The 13 exam rooms already had sinks and cabinets, so they were easily reimagined as studios for rent. And the larger rooms were perfect for classes and workshops— including a dedicated ceramics studio.
A community of artists
Today, colorful signs and a small sculpture garden welcome visitors to the WHAM Community Arts Center. Inside, every inch of the building is dedicated to making, sharing, teaching, learning and practicing art.
The WHAM West Gallery, which is free to visitors, hosts a new exhibit nearly every month, ranging from juried shows to rentals — with fees geared toward struggling artists. Volunteer docents answer questions, and a self-service café offers a quiet place to contemplate the artwork.
But even past the official gallery, hallways are hung with paintings, drawings and prints. A small gift shop offers jewelry and ceramics for sale. And the doors of the private studios are adorned with art, giving a peek at the work being produced by the residents inside, most of whom are professional artists.
One of those artists, Dianne Gibson, runs a business called Painting 4 Fun from her WHAM studio. Gibson, who provides supplies and instruction for casual art classes, used to rent space in a commercial plaza, but moved to WHAM in January 2015, attracted by the lower rent and the ability to borrow the larger classroom for group lessons. But, she said, one of the biggest advantages has been the inspiration she gets herself.
“When I walked in to reserve my studio space, they had just put a new show up,” she remembered. “And I was just in awe of the works in the gallery. I love being around other artists and seeing what they’re doing.”
Kelley Smith has had a similar experience. As an established painter with a busy commission schedule, Smith already had a nice, big studio at home.
But what she didn’t have was an artistic support group.
“Working at home all the time, I was feeling kind of isolated,” Smith admitted. “I needed people who could speak my language.”
Two years ago, Smith found those people at WHAM, where she now teaches painting and drawing classes.
“The creative energy here is wonderful,” she explained. “I docent once or twice a month and when I leave I just want to go straight home and paint, I’m so inspired.”
There may actually be more creative energy at WHAM than four walls can contain.
Sharing Whitlock’s conviction that “art is for everyone,” WHAM’s programs include after-school classes and art camps for children, an art club for teens, and adult classes that range from Sharpie drawings to pottery. To reach underserved community members, arts educators have tailored adaptive art projects for children and adults with special needs, and others offer free classes to area schools that lack arts programming.
Every April, WHAM hosts a recycled art festival, and in November, the ceramics artists team up with the Sun City Grand clay club for the “Bowls of Hope” fundraiser to benefit West Valley food banks and shelters.
Even with all those projects, there’s still enough art that some literally spills into the streets.
A new “WHAM on Wheels” studio, built on a flatbed trailer, allows volunteers to host pop-up art classes at parks and public spaces around the West Valley; and several cities have commissioned WHAM artists to create public art projects, including a sculpture at the Goodyear Ballpark, murals at Bicentennial Park in Surprise and mosaic planters for downtown Peoria.
A path to healing
But among the most important outreach programs, said Whitlock, are the free art workshops for military veterans and first responders — a collaboration with Arizona Arts Alliance and the Eagles club of Surprise. The sessions, held three times each month at locations in Surprise and Peoria, allow participants to simply relax and enjoy the creative process, explained coordinator Marty Wolfe.
At each four-hour workshop, veterans explore projects that range from woodburning to mask-making. Some members take turns teaching, others do their own thing, such as the 94-year-old veteran who comes to sketch the other participants. There’s no pressure, no judgment — and no formal therapy.
“They don’t have to talk about anything,” Wolfe explained. “They just do the art.”
But doing the art is enough, said Budd Gilbert, who has been attending since 2014.
After serving 16 years as a U.S. Army Ranger, Gilbert was suffering from chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder when a counselor persuaded him to attend his first WHAM workshop.
“It was one of the few times I’d been out of the house for a while,” Gilbert remembered, “and we did a little painting and I still don’t know why, but it was the first time in a long time I had a glimmer of hope.”
With Whitlock’s coaxing, he returned the next month. And the next. The glimmer grew slowly but steadily.
“You come here and it provides such a safe environment,” Gilbert explained. “When you have PTSD, you lose everything, including your identity. I got to where I didn’t even speak. But after I came here, I started to realize that I have friends. It’s not just the art, it’s the process and the camaraderie.”
Gilbert has felt so much relief that he now acts as a recruiter for the program, and has even used his new skills to help other people, as when he brought painting supplies to a veteran who was in the midst of a panic attack.
“I told him to paint what he was feeling,” remembered Gilbert. “And he started telling me he didn’t know anything about art, but I said: ‘Just paint.’ And in just a few minutes, he started calming down.”
The experience was an eye-opener, said Gilbert, proving to him that art can be an effective tool for healing.
Whitlock was gratified, but not surprised.
“Art is therapeutic for everyone,” she explained, “whether you have an illness or just need a little stress break. Everyone needs to develop their inner creativity. It’s part of being human.”
Using art for good
Alberto Hernandez also credits WHAM with improving his life. A few years ago, when he was a junior in high school, the Surprise native didn’t feel like he had an outlet to express himself. He started tagging walls with graffiti and getting in trouble for drawing during math class.
That changed when a friend invited him to join the teen art club at WHAM.
“It was amazing how much Connie genuinely cared about us as young artists and wanted to let us show what we could do,” Hernandez said.
Whitlock assigned the teens to help with a public art project in Surprise: a mural intended to help cut down on graffiti at a park restroom. The group worked with police officers to clean the walls, then painted scenes representing the past, present and future of the growing city.
“It was the first time anyone showed me that I could use my art for good,” Hernandez said.
Now 22 and a licensed Realtor, Hernandez volunteers for WHAM whenever he can, often working with teens who, like himself, want to make their mark as young artists.
How art should be
For Whitlock, the success that Gilbert and Hernandez have found through art is the reward for her work.
“That’s why we do it,” she said. “If you can inspire just one person, it’s worth it. That’s why I’m pushing hard to grow: for the community and for children.”
Because, despite everything the club has achieved so far, Whitlock hopes to keep expanding. In 2015, when the lease on their building reverted to the city of Surprise, WHAM signed a 20-year lease. But WHAM also keeps reaching beyond those walls. The group will host its first plein-air festival in Peoria’s Vistancia neighborhood in April, and recently bought a used truck to keep WHAM on Wheels rolling across the West Valley. And they’re expanding their definition of arts, too, with poetry slams and live events.
The major reason WHAM has been so effective, said Whitlock, is that it has more than 200 members who are just as passionate as she is. Instead of a rigid hierarchy, volunteers work in teams to manage the various departments and initiatives, with everyone contributing their own skills.
“Even though I started this, it is so much bigger than me,” Whitlock insisted. “It’s a group effort.”
And that sense of community, according to Hernandez, is WHAM’s greatest achievement.
“It’s all real people,” he said. “It’s all ages and backgrounds and no one’s excluded. Everyone’s included. It’s how art should be.”
Details: WHAM Community Arts Center is a non-profit, volunteer-run organization that offers art classes, workshops, exhibits, performances, and more. For information, visit www.wham-art.org or call 623-584-8311. Located at 16560 N. Dysart Road, Surprise.
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