Art therapy group holding limited classes at refurbished Aztec Theater

Inspire heART welcomes students by appointment only

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Christy Clugston is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization.
  • The group holds classes at the Aztec Theater and conducts outreach efforts at schools throughout San Juan County.
  • The organization recently received a grant from the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation.

FARMINGTON — Strolling between the long tables where her students were assembled behind small easels, each facing a blank canvas, Christy Clugston squeezed out a dollop of brown acrylic paint for each of them while asking them to think about the things that made them happy.

When only a few students mumbled a halfhearted response, Clugston tried a different approach.

"OK, so let me ask you a different question," she said. "What has made you laugh to the point that spit out water or milk came out your nose?"

Judging by the round of laughter that followed, that icebreaker question worked a little better.

As Clugston led the painting class on Dec. 29, 2020, for eight students ranging in age from 10 to 15, she was trying to put the members of the group in a relaxed, creative frame of mind before they set to work on their canvas. But she also was trying to get them to air out their feelings as they continue the navigate the challenges of being young in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has sealed off many of their traditional avenues for social interaction.

CEO Christy Clugston leads a painting class on Dec. 29, 2020, at the Aztec Theater, the new home of the nonprofit arts organization Inspire heART.

"I want them to laugh, but the biggest thing is, I want them to have a safe atmosphere," Clugston said later, as she settled into one of the armchairs at Inspire heART, the nonprofit arts therapy organization she founded in the Aztec Theater at 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec.

"A lot of kids are scared to leave the house," she said, describing the feedback she has gotten from some of her students whose families have been hit especially hard by the virus. "We're intent on being a resource for kids and families struggling with depression."

Cody Clugston, front, and Jadyn Gardenhire work on their paintings during a Dec. 29, 2020, class at Inspire heART at the Aztec Theater.

With Inspire heART having obtained its business license in the middle of December, Clugston has been able to welcome small groups of students into the refurbished theater for the past couple of weeks. It's nowhere near the number of young people she eventually hopes to serve, but it's a start.

Her eight students on this day sat spaced the requisite 6 feet apart, clad in face masks and aprons as they absorbed her instructions and focused on their assignment, which was to paint a cityscape at sunset. A few other groups had come in for classes earlier in December, and Clugston had continued her efforts to conduct sessions at schools in outlying parts of San Juan County.

A grant from the nonprofit Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation in Farmington helped Clugston reach out to students throughout the county. Her organization was being reimbursed by the CGAF for all the money it spent on art supplies in December, and Clugston said that was a welcome contribution, given the fact that her fledgling organization now has taken on the expense of operating a large building in addition to conducting its usual programming.

Students ranging in age from 10 to 15 take part in a painting class on Dec. 29, 2020, at Inspire heART headquarters at the Aztec Theater.

Inspire heART is designed to provide a healthy, creative outlet for young people who may be experiencing negative emotions, and Clugston — the organization's CEO — has focused almost exclusively on traditional painting styles so far as a means to engage the students who come to her for help. But she hopes to have the resources soon to be able to do more than that.

"I want to be able to offer more media," she said. "I have students who want to learn how to paint shoes, who want to learn pouring paint.  … I've been helping certain student who want to start YouTube channels, so I'd like to be able to buy some lights. I just try to learn with them. If you just let them lead, if people just trust them, they do amazing things."

CEO Christy Clugston of Inspire heART says she hopes her organization can begin to offer students the opportunity to begin working in other media soon besides painting.

Clugston said her goal is for her students to eventually develop a sense of ownership in the building, in the sense that they come to view it as a warm, welcoming place where they can explore and indulge their creative impulses while also speaking with a sympathetic adult about any problems they may be experiencing.

Inspire heART was founded before the pandemic began, but Clugston believes the organization is needed now more than ever, given the social disruption and isolation that has resulted from the spread of the virus.

Clugston knows there is a big market for the services her organization offers, which are available by appointment only. She says she has a list of students who are waiting two to three weeks to be fitted into a class, and she regrets that she cannot yet accept walk-ins, given the social distancing restrictions that remain in place because of the governor's public health orders.

But she is pleased that the extensive renovation work her organization began when it moved into the aging theater is almost complete. Parts of the theater have received new paint, flooring, carpet and furniture, and Clugston has decorated the building's foyer with large, mounted photos of the students her organization has helped.

Student Emmie Fitzgerald works on her painting during a Dec. 29, 2020, class at Inspire heART at the Aztec Theater.

She smiled as she took out her iPhone and played a video made by a boy who was so socially isolated when he came to Inspire heART that he could barely speak to anyone. After three sessions, the boy had become so comfortable among his fellow students at the theater that he chattered confidently through a one-minute video, beaming at the camera as he talked about his experience.

"Just look at his face," Clugston said, her eyes shining.

The Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation awarded a grant to Inspire heART that reimbursed the organization for its art supplies throughout the month of December.

The organization's outreach efforts have had a positive effect, as well. Clugston described leading a class in December in a school in a remote part of the county and working with a girl who was using nail polish to finish a project because her school had no money for art supplies.

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Being able to help students in those situations give Clugston a sense of accomplishment, even though she wishes she could be doing more. She encouraged anyone interested in making a donation to do so by sending a check made out to Inspire heART to P.O. Box 896, Aztec, NM 87410. Anyone interested in volunteering for the organization or making an appointment for a child is asked to call 505-636-2470 or visit the group's website at

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.