As a teacher, a docent and the founder of the Menlo Park nonprofit Art in Action, Judy Sleeth has inspired a love of art in thousands of students nationwide. Her arts curriculum serves 70,000 students at 500 schools in 18 states.
Ms. Sleeth, a resident of Atherton, is one of seven recipients of the 2017 Lifetime of Achievement Awards, given by Avenidas, the Palo Alto community center for older adults.
(Click here for information on all the recipients of the 2017 award.)
When Judy Sleeth was in high school, an art museum visit with a friend gave her a surprising lesson in what was missing from her own education. The friend, a Swiss foreign-exchange student, knew how to interpret the paintings. Art appreciation was a routine part of the curriculum at her school in Switzerland.
"I felt, really, as though I had been robbed of something special," Ms. Sleeth recalled, "because we didn't get that at all in public school in California then, or now. At that time, I understood that I wanted to do something to make art come to life for other people, specifically children."
She has made good on that aspiration: As a teacher, a docent and the founder of the nonprofit Art in Action, Ms. Sleeth has inspired a love of art in thousands of Peninsula students.
"I think the world opens to you with art," she said. "It's a whole visual language that, increasingly, is how we communicate: with images and photography."
Ms. Sleeth, who grew up in Pasadena, studied history and art history in college and earned a master's degree in education. She taught English, history and art history at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.
Art in Action began in 1982, when she volunteered in her eldest daughter's kindergarten classroom. Budget cuts had ended arts education, so the teacher asked her to give art lessons.
Large-scale art prints left over from a Junior League of Palo Alto program became the basis of her first lessons.
"Van Gogh's Sunflowers, for example — we would talk about how the colors make you feel, how the flowers show movement," Ms. Sleeth said. "And even kindergartners absolutely understand that. They can see art differently when they realize the power of an image."
Soon, friends began asking her to show them how to teach art. She designed curriculum for volunteers who don't have a background in art — mostly parents and some teachers. As the program grew, a friend, Betsy Halaby, helped train volunteers and develop lessons.
Volunteer teachers keep Arts in Action affordable for schools, but as with many arts programs, funding is always the biggest challenge, and raising funds is a necessity.
For a time, finding a consistent source of large prints proved frustrating, but the internet made it easier. It has also allowed Art in Action to offer its volunteer training online and reach more schools.
Art in Action now serves 74,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade nationwide. In addition to offering lessons in art appreciation, the organization equips volunteers with "art kits" stocked with art supplies so that students can create their own art.
Ms. Sleeth often hears from teachers that days with Art in Action visits have almost perfect class attendance.
From the founding of Art in Action until her retirement as executive director in 2013, she never collected a salary. She is still active with the program, spearheading a scholarship fund that allows more schools to participate.
Last year, she received the President's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Obama Administration. The award recognizes extraordinary volunteer service.
For many years, she has also volunteered as a docent with Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, developing tours for school children. When Art in Action students come to the Cantor, she enjoys the chance to see their newfound appreciation of art.
"Even the 5- and 6-year-olds understand basic concepts of art," she said. "They say things like, 'I can't believe we're looking at the real thing an artist painted a thousand years ago.' To have them understand that is one of the most special things about art. Because art is the footprint of mankind."