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Nonprofit arts therapy group founded after Aztec High shooting moves into Aztec Theater

CEO Christy Clugston hopes to have building open next month

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Inspire heART is a nonprofit organization that promotes art therapy.
  • The group recently moved into the Aztec Theater, a one-time movie theater and live music venue.
  • The organization is searching for donations and volunteers.

FARMINGTON — Even before she founded her nonprofit art therapy organization Inspire heART Inc. a year ago, Christy Clugston had spent a long time working with local students, using the creation of visual art as a healthy, creative outlet for the negative emotions many of them were feeling, especially in the aftermath of the Aztec High School shooting in December 2017.

She could plainly see how helpful those sessions were to some of the kids she worked with, and as time went by, she developed theories about why that creative approach was successful when others had failed. But it wasn't until she asked one of her eighth-grade students what she liked about the program that Clugston got the straightforward answer she was looking for.

"Because it gives me a voice without actually having to speak it out," the girl told her.

More:Aztec High School shooting victim remembered by mother as a 'fighter'

Clugston smiled Nov. 13 as she related that story while nestled into a sofa at her organization's new headquarters in the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec, while her daughter Taylor sat at a table nearby, completing her schoolwork online.

Christy Clugston, the CEO and founder of Inspire heART, stands inside the nonprofit organization's new home in the Aztec Theater.

A place for struggles and and isolation to spill out on the canvas

As the organization's CEO, Clugston was busy preparing the building for a hoped-for opening late this month or early next month. But that didn't stop her from taking the time to address the significance of Inspire heART finally having a home of its own after bouncing from classroom to classroom for the past few years — or her higher aspirations for the organization.

Christy Clugston founded the Inspire heART nonprofit organization after the December 2017 Aztec High School shooting.

"Even if the schools did open back up and things went back to normal, my dream is for this to become a really cool hangout place," Clugston said, sweeping her arm in front of her and taking in the coffeehouse vibe she is trying to cultivate in the one-time movie theater and live music venue.

That may come to pass. But for as long as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, the spacious theater will serve as a space where Clugston and her crew of volunteers can work with young people in a safe, socially distanced fashion. Her plan is for the building to be open by appointment only, with only a handful of students at a time working out their issues through visual art.

What those students may be reluctant or unwilling to verbalize often comes spilling out on a paper or canvas, she said, finally allowing them to be addressed before they reach crisis proportion. Clugston said the service the organization provides is needed now more than ever as so many young people struggle to come to grips with the pandemic and the social isolation it requires.

"I was not planning on having a building," she said. "Before (the pandemic), I could go to schools and work with everybody, and we just took the supplies there. But I did a presentation for San Juan County's 100 Men and Women Who Care (a local philanthropic organization), and I got a $12,000 grant from them (in January)."

Inspire heART founder and CEO Christy Clugston hopes her organization's new home in the Aztec Theater someday can serve as a relaxing after-school hangout spot for students, in addition to providing art therapy.

That allowed Clugston to start thinking about her organization on a larger scale. She met with the owner of the theater, who agreed to let her organization use the space while the building remains on the open market. Then the charitable arm of Lowe's Home Improvement agreed to provide furniture, paint, flooring and other materials to spruce up the theater's interior – work that will continue through the end of this month.

How to contribute to the organization

Some of the group's other needs have been met, as well. Clugston said an anonymous donor agreed to cover the utility costs for the theater through February. But she has a long list of items and services the organization can't afford, and she hopes someone else will step up to provide them. She said anyone interested in contributing to the organization can check its website at inspireheartinc.com.

Clugston said 14 students already are on a waiting list for the organization's services when the building opens, and she hopes to see more sign up.

Inspire heART founder and CEO Christy Clugston relaxes with her daughter Taylor inside the organization's new home in the Aztec Theater.

"A lot of these students have struggled with depression and are what I would call high risk," she said.

The goal of Inspire heART is to be proactive, to offer solutions or relief for young people before they reach a state of hopelessness, she said — something that already has happened too often in San Juan County since the pandemic began.

The lobby of the Inspire heART headquarters in the Aztec Theater is lined with artwork and upbeat signage.

"We're trying to be ahead of it before a student feels their only solution is taking their life," she said.

The most important commodity Inspire heART deals in, she said, is encouragement, and Clugston — who took up painting herself only a few years ago — is willing to share it with anyone who needs it.

"We work with adults, as well, to let them know they're heard and cared about," Clugston said. "Art is a great tool for them."

With the shutdown of schools, Inspire heART has been unable to reach its target audience since the pandemic began — a time when its services seem to be most in need. But Clugston hopes she'll be allowed to begin welcoming limited numbers of students into the theater in December.

Inspire heART founder and CEO Christy Clugston only began painting a few years ago but has discovered she has a natural talent for it.

"I'm a very optimistic person. I try to find solutions instead of complaining," she said, adding that she welcomes new volunteers and believes that kind of work has its own therapeutic benefits for those who are feeling down.

"I tell people, 'Serving others in any form or capacity is the fastest way of get out of depression,'" she said.

Anyone interested in contributing their time or money to Inspire heART, or taking advantage of its services is encouraged to email Clugston at inspireheart4c@gmail or message her on Facebook or Instagram at inspireheart4c.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.