It was a week after the Nov. 11 opening of Wendy Leahy Mitchell’s Arts & Nature School of Ridgefield, but its Route 7 location was still something of a secret to passing motorists.
“We’re still waiting for our sign,” said Mitchell with a sigh. “I tried putting up a sandwich board, but the wind kept blowing it over. People are driving by but they don’t know that we’re here.”
Mitchell also opened the school at a time when many parents are preoccupied with other seasonal activities. “It’s an odd time of year, because people are focused on the holidays and not on signing their kids up for classes,” she said.
That’s not to say that her school has been sitting empty. Thanks to aggressive social media outreach and generous word-of-mouth marketing, Mitchell kicked off her venture with a flurry of activity that kept her 750-square-foot space busy with children, teens and parents.
The school is the latest endeavor in Mitchell’s lifelong fascination with creative expression.
“My parents met because they went to a dance,” recalled the 47-year-old Sandy Hook native. “I grew up around music. My mother is Spanish, so at every family party we’d clear out the living room and we’d all dance. When my parents were going through a divorce, music and art got me through.”
Mitchell studied child development at Post University in Waterbury and received her head teacher certification in early childhood education in 2008. She combined her educational training with her skills as a singer and bass player to teach music theater at schools across the state. Simultaneously, she plumbed her entrepreneurial talents to start a mobile DJ service specializing in children’s parties and events. After the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, she founded the Sandy Hook Arts Center for Kids (SHACK), bringing in music, art and animal assistance therapy specialists to help the community heal.
“We offered a lot of free programs for the families there,” she said. “Unfortunately, we were competing with 41 other charities for funding and nobody wanted to work together. We were there for a year and then we moved on.”
Mitchell had considered starting a new school after SHACK closed and began looking for a venue to accommodate her goals. “Then, life threw another curveball and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015,” she said. “So, my dream of opening up another studio was put on hold as I was battling the evil demon for two and a half years.”
As her health began to improve, Mitchell resumed teaching at various locations in the upper Fairfield County area and her postponed dream of operating her own school revived. After scouting locations for most of this year, she found a space at 280 Ethan Allen Highway in Ridgefield whose previous tenants included a hair salon and a dog grooming center.
For its first few months of operation, the Arts & Nature School of Ridgefield will offer a series of special events and classes aimed at all age ranges, with participants starting as young as 1 year old. The school will also cater to adults with Paint and Sip art classes that offer painting instructions with liquid refreshments. Family Paint and Sip classes are also being held, with the kids served age-appropriate beverages while creating art.
In the school’s classes, Mitchell focuses on music and music theater instruction while Michael Cerullo teaches visual arts. When the weather allows, Mitchell guides her younger students on nature hikes, where rocks, leaves and what she dubs “cool pieces of wood” are gathered and brought back to the class for consideration and decoration.
“I want to get their eyes detached from electronics,” she said of her students. “Kids are learning to play with an iPhone when they are 1, and they have no attention span. I see this as getting back to basics by using your imagination and creating something from objects found from nature, which is better than staring at a computer screen.”
For the teen set, Mitchell transforms her space into a dance club, where the youthful participants use glow-in-the-dark body and face paints on themselves and chalk on the wall to create a funky party environment. “I want to give teens a creative outlet for them to come and be themselves,” she said.
Mitchell, the school’s sole full-time employee, declined to disclose the start-up costs for her venture. She stressed the school’s affordable fee structure for classes and workshops. An upcoming Paint and Sip for families is $45 per adult and $25 per child, for example. A “Splatterday Saturday” for ages 2 and up comes with a fee of $25 per child that includes paint supplies.
Mitchell said she differs from some of her competition by acknowledging and appreciating that not every child is a model pupil. “Don’t start a business that revolves around kids if you don’t like kids,” she warned. “I’ve seen it in some of the places that I’ve worked. If you have so many rules like ‘Take your shoes off’ and ‘You can’t touch this’ and ‘You can’t touch that,’ why are you working with kids? Kids are kids. They might make a mess, they might break something. I am not a ‘No! No! No!’ type of person.”
“There is really not much they can get into here because this is a big open space where they can move around and play and be themselves,” she said.