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Bright color and creativity greet visitors to ArtEscape, a welcoming art gallery and studio along busy Highway 12 in Agua Caliente that offers a wide variety of free and low-cost classes and workshops.

Displays set against red walls showcase the artwork created by kids, teens and adults of all ability levels who find affordable fun and nurturing teachers at this unique arts venue.

ArtEscape is a nonprofit community outreach program that brings the visual arts to underserved neighborhoods in northern Sonoma Valley.

A cottage formerly used as a business space was transformed by the vision and dedication of five seasoned artists from the Arts Guild of Sonoma, the oldest arts cooperative in California.

ArtEscape welcomes people of all ages for hands-on programs that ignite creativity. Organizers especially reach out to children and teens who, in turn, bring their families and friends to discover the myriad of artistic opportunities.

Guild artists Janis Kobe, Gayle Manfre, the late Penny MacNaughton, Kate Ortolano and Thena Trygstad (Sonoma’s new honorary Treasure Artist) founded ArtEscape in early 2012 to expand the educational efforts of the guild.

“We walked up and down Highway 12. We really wanted it in Boyes Hot Springs,” Ortolano said. “We wanted to reach people who didn’t have access to art in their neighborhoods. That’s why we were so adamant to be in the Springs.”

Today the program offers a wide variety of free and low-cost classes and workshops. ArtEscape has hosted successful summer camps, exhibitions, teaching apprenticeships and training workshops for teachers. Local guest artists also can rent space to teach classes and broaden the offerings at ArtEscape.

“What I see is a lot of awe,” Ortolano said. “For all of us who are directly working with kids, it brings us this internal joy.”

Students — adults included — are encouraged to overlook their day-to-day concerns for a few hours as they immerse themselves in fine arts and crafts projects. Opportunities include collage, calligraphy, jewelry, mixed media, mosaics, cartooning, sculpture and photography.

Watercolors, acrylics and cans of spray paint have equal value at ArtEscape, where every medium is encouraged, from painting and drawing to encaustic and urban art. Quality materials and equipment are available, including a book press for popular book arts projects.

“I think it’s empowering and helps people see things from different perspectives,” said Jean Prominski, a professional glass artist who three months ago was hired as the center’s first executive director.

Prominski, 33, brings a rich arts background to her job. She has bachelor’s and master’s of fine arts degrees from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Rhode Island School of Design, respectively, and also studied architecture at Drexel University.

Her artwork has been featured in numerous exhibitions, most recently at Google headquarters in San Francisco. She shares those experiences with ArtEscape students, challenging them to brainstorm ideas and open their potential as emerging artists.

“She’s bringing a discipline to the forefront for these kids,” Ortolano said. “That’s something we weren’t bringing.”

ArtEscape offers free weekly after-school art classes for elementary school students, with groups of 14 third- through fifth-graders from nearby Flowery Elementary School currently rotating sessions each month.

Free weekend art projects for families are offered each month, activities that encourage hands-on creativity.

Students identified for their passion and ability are invited to Friday afternoon Art 101 classes to further their talents.

ArtEscape also matches students to mentor artists and provides advisors for high school seniors pursuing their senior projects, a graduation requirement at Sonoma Valley High School.

The teacher workshops reach even more students by training educators to expand arts programs in their own classrooms. Veteran elementary schoolteacher Billie Perez says the workshops are especially beneficial.

Perez retired three years ago after 36 years in education but continues to work as a substitute teacher and also teaches art to kindergartners through a grant from the Plein Air Foundation.

She says art can serve as a gateway to career paths, from architecture and landscape design to math and science, by introducing components like shape, balance, texture, patterns and positive and negative space, valuable lessons that weave into academics.

“The classes taught at ArtEscape touch on many of these areas in a way a person would never suspect they were doing math or looking at science,” Perez said. “They encourage us to think outside the box and show us how to direct others to do the same.”

Prominski believes students benefit from art in multiple ways, from escapism to focusing on the task at hand.

“Observation translates into other ways of learning,” Prominski said. “It builds confidence, and it builds unique character, too.”

ArtEscape is funded through private donations and grants. Prominski is seeking additional funding to purchase equipment and expand programming. Organizers hope to offer Friday night art classes for teens.

Recently, the program doubled its square footage when a business sharing the building vacated the property. ArtEscape now features several classrooms, a gallery, an office, a kitchen and two restrooms, all displaying vibrant artwork.

ArtEscape offers several activities today, including a free holiday ornament workshop for families and a $25 wreath-making workshop, both 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and a “Kaleidoscope” photography show 2-5 p.m. A holiday sale featuring jewelry, paintings and handicrafts runs throughout the day. Stop by at 17474 Highway 12, visit artescapesonoma.com or facebook.com/artescapesonoma or call 938-5551.

Contact Sonoma Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at SonomaTowns@gmail.com.