If there’s such a thing as a teenage midlife crisis, Tara Sevanne Thomas experienced it.
But that discomfort and inability to find a niche came with benefits: She grew into a person with empathy. She understands how it feels to be different from others or uncomfortable in situations where others excel. That compassion is responsible for the 25-year career she’s had at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, where she’s the director of the Bemis School of Art. The school provides a wide range of art classes for all ages and skill levels, and also focuses on bringing art to the military community and underserved youth.
“I’ve seen, especially working with the military and dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other emotional issues, art can make a difference and change a life,” says the Colorado Springs native. “It changed my life. I know it helps people get through some real trauma or sends them in a different direction, like it did me.”
As a freshly sprouted teenager, Thomas’ family moved from their longtime neighborhood to a new home on the east side of town. With that came a new school and new people that never quite clicked for the teen. Her grades started dropping and she was skipping school when her mom suggested they take a look at some alternative ways for her to learn.
She earned a GED (General Educational Development) certification, and at 15 started English and sociology classes at Pikes Peak Community College. It still didn’t feel like quite the right fit. But then her mom suggested she try pursuing art and take a graphic design class.
“The first day I thought this is where I’m supposed to be — around artistic people, creatives,” says Thomas.
That struggle to find her clan motivates her today when she helps at-risk kids, military folks and those with developmental disabilities.
“I feel like I was one in some way,” she says. “It (art) gives folks hope and creative expression. It helps them deal with frustration and anger. It’s all those things we feel when we deal with art. We lose track of time. It brings more peace and it brings down our frustration level.”
Thomas went on to graduate from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she also taught for a couple of years as an undergrad. That came in handy when she landed a job at Bemis, where she went from teaching college students to teaching kindergartners: “It was a little rough going,” she says.
In 2000, she earned a master’s degree in teaching from Colorado College, which helped her take over leadership about a decade ago. Bemis Assistant Director Jeremiah Houck, who’s also been with the school for more than two decades, remembers when Thomas stepped into her new role.
“When Tara took over, things immediately got larger, in a good way,” says Houck, a clay artist. “We added lots of things for folks who couldn’t previously afford classes. That’s when she started the program for vets. She decided to make it free and make it work.”
Thomas has worked to make the school more diverse and inclusive over the last decade. She’s taken art into schools with an underserved population, expanded the number of scholarships they award and has grown awareness of the school in the community.
“The catalog was a flyer,” remembers Houck about Bemis offerings when he started in 1996. “Nowadays, we’re providing classes to about 3,000 students a year. We offer 100 classes three times a year. That doesn’t only support students who want to come. That also supports the teachers. Out of 35 teachers, 20 are working at any time. That supports a ton of local artists.”
Bemis also works with organizations such as Mount Carmel Veterans Service Center, Griffith Centers for Children, Inside Out Youth Services and Roundup Fellowship, which helps kids and adults with developmental disabilities.
“Art therapy is an important alternative therapy,” says Mount Carmel’s Chief Operating Officer Bob McLaughlin. “She’s (Thomas) been generous with her time and helping us develop an art therapy program which we deliver at Mount Carmel. We’re proud of it. To mix the community with supporting vets, it’s two cultures coming together. She’s been able to make that happen.”
Working with the military community is one of the achievements she’s most proud of, says Thomas. In the past, the FAC has partnered with an AspenPointe art therapist and also worked with the National Endowment for the Arts on a military arts connection.
“There’s a need. Obviously there’s a desire. Our classes are always full,” she says. “I’ve seen people on the verge of suicide who have used arts to save their lives.”
Kathy Stults, Roundup Fellowship’s Colorado Springs educational director, has worked with Thomas through the decades and calls her an “incredible collaborator.” She remembers asking Thomas to help create an arts opportunity while working for a Colorado Springs School District 11 program for emotionally impaired kids.
“Arts are therapeutic for a lot of people, particularly young adults with issues,” says Stults.
“Tara believes that wholeheartedly as well. She designed programs for our students. They were kids who had never been in any arts institution. To get out of school and do art classes in an actual art museum or institution was genius.”
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