South Suburban Artists Collective

It’s a cold early January morning in the Centennial home of sculptor Stephanie Wilson Thomas. She’s filling coffee cups for her artist friends as they gather in her warm kitchen, scribbling down their plans for the coming year. The women, some of whom have known each other for more than 20 years, are laughing, making jokes, but they are serious about their mission here: To bring art to the communities south of Denver.

They call themselves the South Suburban Artists Collective, or SOSU for short. The group started about two years ago when some friends —and then friends of friends — in Centennial began talking about the need for art community south of the the big city, where the major art museums, galleries and art collectives reside.

“It’s amazing how much this area is growing, and how fast. Any community benefits from art,” says Thomas, who herself moved to Centennial five years ago from Galveston, Texas. “I want to live in a place where art is important.”

Most of the SOSU artists are current or former elementary and middle school art teachers, which is how their friendships began, and have collaborated on exhibitions, sales and workshops over the years.

For the past two Christmas seasons, SOSU has leased short-term retail locations for pop-up sales, as well as hosted sales and workshops in various members’ homes. But their end goal is to create something similar to the Art Students League of Denver, located near downtown, where all of them have spent time taking classes and collaborating with other artists to hone their skills.

Their dream is a one-stop shop in Littleton or Centennial that houses a gallery, affordable shared studio space, and workshop in which to teach classes for anyone in the area. The women are continually scouting retail locations that would fit their needs, and hope to secure funding from municipalities or other sources to help pay for it.

“When I think of the kind of place I want to live, art is a part of it,” Thomas says. “We’ve done it on our own, but we want it to be bigger than that.”

At this morning’s meeting, they finalize their next workshop offering: Paint-and-take Valentine’s ceramic-heart classes, one for adults at a local winery and one for children on a Saturday morning at a member’s home.

Julie Vincelette, who teaches elementary art in Littleton Public Schools, says she frequently hears from parents and neighbors about how they want to make art but don’t know where to begin. So she’s quick to repeat her mantra that even her kindergartners know well: There are no mistakes in art.

“Part of what I enjoy is teaching the creative process,” she says. “It’s frustrating when I hear people say ‘I can’t do that. I’m not an artist.’ But it’s about taking the time to sometimes be uncomfortable.”

SOSU’s mission of providing workshops to the public will only make the community stronger, she says. “Community is the biggest piece,” Vincelette says. “I can go work in my own space, but to make art together is a powerful thing.”

The logistical operation of SOSU has been a learning process for everyone. Someone sets up the payment system for sales and workshops; someone else takes on finding temporary retail locations; a couple others have lobbied Centennial city staff with their vision for an arts center.

“We’re artists, not businesspeople. But we just jump in and try to figure it out,” Vincelette said.

Mar Knight-Hall is an herbalist who makes skin-care products with herbs she grows and forages. She hand-sews eye pillows from renowned Liberty of London fabric and creates balms from recipes that have been around for hundreds of years. She says the favorite part of her creative process is seeing people close their eyes to linger over the fragrance of her products. Making people feel something is at the heart of art and being an artist.

“There are so many hard things in the world,” she says, “and what we do makes people happy.”