Teaching Kids Art Helps Them Sculpt a Beautiful Life

A Canadian artist and mother launches Arts Umbrella, a charity that has set the standard for children’s art education around the world.

Carol Henriquez’s success in teaching young people art through Arts Umbrella has earned her an appointment to the Order of Canada — the country’s highest distinction for lifetime achievement. Photo by Milos Tosic

“Arts have the ability to reach children when other things can’t,” says Carol Henriquez, cofounder of Arts Umbrella, a Vancouver nonprofit that provides high-quality art education to children in some of the city’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods.

Arts Umbrella helps more than 20,000 children each year to develop not only artistic skills, but also self-confidence, focus, patience, work ethic, and the courage to follow their hearts.

Henriquez often hears from former students or their parents, who tell her that Arts Umbrella changed their lives. It’s been a hard journey for Henriquez — she started the organization in 1979 with only a few hundred dollars, four teachers, and 45 students.

But she persevered for decades, having felt the uplifting impacts of art in her own life and wanting to share them. And due to the success of her work with Arts Umbrella, Henriquez has been appointed to the Order of Canada — the country’s highest distinction for lifetime achievement.

With tears in her eyes, she recalls one boy’s story, a story that exemplifies the kind of impact Arts Umbrella has had on many.

Maureen Procter, a longtime teacher at Arts Umbrella, was doing outreach at a school in east Vancouver in a big class of 30 kids. The students were all doing prints when the principal came in and commented on one boy’s work.

“Suddenly teachers are coming from all over the school to take a look at what this child is doing, and they’re taking photos,” Procter later told Henriquez. Procter wasn’t sure what was going on until the art teacher explained the child’s background.

“This child is a new immigrant to Canada,” the teacher told Procter. “He’s been at the school for six months and hasn’t done a thing in six months. He finished that project from beginning to end.”

Henriquez says, “The arts provide a vehicle for children to succeed in life. No matter what they’re doing [as adults], alumni say it changed their lives.”

A mother of an alumna recognized Henriquez at the supermarket and stopped to thank her. The former student is now a successful lawyer. The mother said her daughter was arguing a big court case and told her, “Mom, I’m calling on my Arts Umbrella skills I learned in theatre.”

rts Umbrella offers programs across many disciplines, including theatre, music, sculpture, painting, photography, and filmmaking. Photo courtesy of Arts Umbrella
rts Umbrella offers programs across many disciplines, including theatre, music, sculpture, painting, photography, and filmmaking. Photo courtesy of Arts Umbrella

Student to teacher

Henriquez grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and was something of a pioneer for the arts in her family. She was always seeking new ways to express herself creatively, from painting to piano to dance.

Though her high school didn’t offer art classes, Henriquez took classes downtown from a European-trained, high-realism painter, Ernest Lindner. Every day, Lindner had the class paint the same still-life, over and over. It was all white-on-white shapes — circles, squares, and rectangles.

Typically a very obedient student, Henriquez one day grew tired of the same still-life exercise. Lindner saw the 14-year-old wasn’t painting. When she complained about the task, he said, “Carol, the problem with you is you haven’t suffered enough.”

That moment stuck with Carol; she felt guilty for complaining about a small difficulty. At the time, Lindner epitomized the struggling artist, who even needed to do manual labour painting houses to pay his bills. It wasn’t until the age of 90 that he became internationally famous for his works.

Henriquez didn’t adopt Lindner’s teaching approach, but she did learn from him how art can carry a soul through hardship.

Henriquez earned a degree in social work, but the arts remained a part of her life. She married Richard Henriquez, a sculptor, painter, and architect. Their house has always been filled with the arts — they did everything from making pottery to printmaking — and their children naturally grew up to become creative professionals. Their daughter, Alisa, is a respected painter and university professor in the fine arts; their son, Gregory, joined Richard at Henriquez Partners Architects, a top firm in Vancouver.

Since her college years, Henriquez had wanted to get a fine arts degree. With her husband’s encouragement, she enrolled in what is now Emily Carr University of Art + Design. One of Henriquez’s dearest friends and a professional dancer, Gloria Schwartz, also enrolled in a collegiate program to study contemporary dance.

As Henriquez and Schwartz raised their kids together, they played and danced together as well. They had often discussed how important the arts were for their children. They would daydream about building an art centre for youth, drawing on Vancouver’s rich artistic community.

Henriquez started a career in social work when she was younger, but eventually returned to college to follow her dream of being an artist. Photo by Milos Tosic

“[Our conversations were] mostly philosophical, about having this very high-quality art educational facility,” Henriquez says. “All the teachers would have degrees in what they teach. If you’re studying sculpture, you’ve got a teacher who does sculpture. If you’re doing animation, you’ve got a teacher who does animation all through the program. It’s [about] taking it seriously like you do for adults. Children should have the best of all educations, right?”

One day, as they were cooking together, Schwartz said, “Don’t you think it’s enough time talking?” Henriquez said, “You’re right.”

They didn’t really know where to start, but they put their hearts into the endeavour. “We didn’t know about applying for money or startup grants in those days. We had never fundraised,” Henriquez says.

They found three other art professionals, who were also young parents, to join a small board. Each board member put $50 in the pot, and they launched Arts Umbrella with $250 in 1979, opening the doors to 45 eager students.

Arts Umbrella’s internationally renowned dance curriculum has four programs recognized by the Department of Canadian Heritage. Photo courtesy of Arts Umbrella

Deaf to no child

Henriquez recalls one touching story from the early years at Arts Umbrella that shows how the Vancouver community has rallied around the organization’s mission from the beginning.

They had launched the Gifted Teen scholarship program and were reviewing about 100 applications. Fifteen were selected for the program, but Henriquez then received a call from one of the schools telling her one of the students was deaf.

The school administrator told her that meant Arts Umbrella would have to provide him with a sign-language interpreter. That would cost about $3,000, which Arts Umbrella didn’t have.

Henriquez isn’t one to give up on a student. She spoke with a service group to ask for a donation, and it worked. They provided the full amount for the interpreter. “There are so many little service groups that do so much good work in the community,” she says.

“I was there the day [the student] arrived,” Henriquez says. “I saw him come in with his mom, and they stood in the corner of the room. I immediately knew it was them.”

The interpreter walked in, with a “huge personality,” Henriquez says. “She scooped him up and took him to the classroom.” He stayed with Arts Umbrella for years, and went on to study at the highly acclaimed Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Henriquez emphasizes that these personal stories don’t only exemplify how Arts Umbrella is enriching the youth. “I feel very lucky that I was able to do this in my life. I feel that I’m the one who has benefited from being able to do things for my community and give back,” she says.

Henriquez retired as the organization’s executive director 12 years ago, but she has continued her involvement in various capacities. She says, “If you can find something that is really important to you and give back to the community, it’s pretty special.”