It all started, says Judy Sleeth, when she asked her oldest daughter's kindergarten teacher what type of help she needed.
"We don't have an art teacher anymore," the teacher told her. It was 1982, not long after the passage of Proposition 13 had dramatically reduced funding for California's schools and other public agencies. But, as an experienced former elementary school teacher with degrees in history, art and curriculum development, as well as education, Ms. Sleeth knew just what to do.
Using 12 large-scale prints of artwork left over from an earlier Junior League project, she began by showing her daughter and her classmates at Laurel School in Atherton a print from Vincent van Gogh's Sunflower series.
"Van Gogh is such a childlike artist," Ms. Sleeth says. To this day, van Gogh introduces children to the Art in Action program that grew (and grew) out of that kindergarten class, Ms. Sleeth says.
Then, as now, she first talked about the painting with the students, before asking them open-ended questions about it. What does it remind them of? How does it make them feel? "The flowers almost have a personality some of them look happy and some of them look scared and some of them look angry," she says.
"Close looking is important in what they are doing," she says. "In art, that's what you want to do."
Then, she had them paint. "I really like it to be hands-on," Ms. Sleeth says.
While painting, the children are learning. "They learn to mix colors, and they learn to use gloppy paint and have some texture," she says. They also learn about primary colors and about shapes such as round and oval.
"What is the artist thinking and what is the artist trying to say?" the students are asked.
What may have set Ms. Sleeth's classroom project apart from the efforts of many other volunteers was her training in developing curriculum. She documented what she did in the classroom, using a spreadsheet to keep track of the materials and techniques. Soon, others in the school "saw what was happening and they wanted to do it too," she says. She handed them her notes, which allowed volunteers who weren't teachers or artists to do what she had done.
Before long, parents in other schools heard about it. "It just sort of caught fire in local schools," Ms. Sleeth says.
Art in Action was born.
Too big for her backyard
After a few years, as interest grew, Ms. Sleeth started classes for new Art in Action teachers.
"At some point that became too big a project for my backyard," she notes. The Menlo Park City School District provided her an Encinal School classroom and she began teaching 20 to 30 Art in Action teachers at a time. By 1999, the program -- which by then included curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade -- had grown so much that Art in Action incorporated as a nonprofit.
This year, Art in Action is taught in 313 schools in 30 states across the nation. Nearly 82,000 students are taught by thousands of mostly volunteer teachers, many of whom come to the organization's Menlo Park headquarters for in-person training.
While the program still follows the procedure started in those first classes, the lessons are now computer-based. Lessons address art from many cultures and many media, and even iPad art is taught.
The annual cost, which is underwritten by donors, is minimal: $210 per classroom, including training. Art in Action also offers packages of the art materials needed for lessons. Scholarships are available for schools that can't afford Art in Action through a program named in honor of Ms. Sleeth, which she administers.
Art in Action is designed for schools that don't have an art teacher; although some schools, such as Laurel School's campuses in Atherton and Menlo Park, use it even though they have an art teacher. The lessons incorporate state and national art standards.
Ms. Sleeth says one of the most valuable things about the program is that it gives children concepts and vocabulary to think about and talk about art.
"It's a progressive, systematic thing. They keep learning new skills and it gets more complex every year," she says.
The volunteer teachers also often say they end up with a better appreciation of art, she says.
She loved kids and art
Ms. Sleeth says she always enjoyed working with children, and had been interested in teaching since her childhood in Pasadena. At Pasadena High School she began a year-long project of giving art lessons to inner-city students.
Another inspiration came from her days teaching elementary school in San Mateo, where she was involved in the Junior Great Books program, in which children are "asked thoughtful questions about literature," she says.
"Thinking of good questions is a real art," she says. "Authentic questions, questions you don't have answers to."
Such questions became an integral part of Art in Action: "Getting kids to look closely by asking really good questions, making them think," she says.
Judy and her husband, Wally Sleeth, have lived in Menlo Park and then Atherton for more than four decades, moving to Atherton in 1989. Mr. Sleeth is retired as an attorney in the telecom industry and now is a community volunteer involved in the Lindenwood Homes Association, Atherton's library, and disaster preparedness activities.
While Ms. Sleeth founded and shepherded Art in Action, she was never paid for working there. She retired as executive director in 2013.
She also taught at Castilleja School in Palo Alto from 1997 to 2009, helping to start its sixth-grade program and teaching English, history and art history.
During that time she was also raising three children, a volunteer docent at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, where she still helps with children's programs, and a member of the Junior League.
In 2016, Ms. Sleeth was given the President's Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama, and in 2017 she was given a Lifetime of Achievement Award from Avenidas, the Palo Alto community center for older adults.
But what she appreciates the most is knowing how many children are learning about art from the program she developed. Art in Action says nearly 500,000 children have taken its lessons since Ms. Sleeth founded the organization.
Thinking about the number of children learning art from her program this year alone makes Ms. Sleeth happy, she says. "It thrills me hugely that 80,000 kids in America are getting art from my program," she says.
Laurel students still learning from Art in Action
It's been 35 years since Judy Sleeth started teaching what would become the Art in Action program in her daughter's kindergarten class at Laurel School in Atherton.
Since then, the organization says, more than half a million students have been beneficiaries of the program.
At Laurel School on a recent Thursday afternoon, four mothers of students in Leigh Wilson's kindergarten class arrived to teach an Art in Action lesson called "Balanced Composition," inspired by Piet Mondrian's abstract art.
Seated on a rug or snuggled up on a classroom sofa, the students listened as Kathy Kursa told them a little about Mondrian and his art, projecting examples of his work on a large screen.
The kindergarten classroom was filled with the results of their earlier art lessons, including a row of paintings inspired by one of Vincent van Gogh's Sunflower series paintings.
Ms. Kursa showed the students a copy of one of Mondrian's simple abstract paintings -- red, yellow and blue cubes divided by thick and thin black lines. "When you look at it, does it make you think of anything?" Ms. Kursa asked. "A maze," said one child. "Buildings," said another. "A maze you can never get out of," said a third. "Legoland Hotel," said another.
The kindergartners talked about how the painting had been composed, and how it made them feel. "Robotic," "beautiful," "weird," "calm" and "happy" came up. Then they hurried to tables where they picked up pre-cut strips of paper to make their own Mondrian-inspired collages.
The composition, said one of the mothers helping with the lesson, "is all up to you."
"Keep doing it until you're happy with what you have," said another, as they passed out glue for the students to use once they were ready to anchor their compositions in place.
"I like doing art all the time," one of the students said. Van Gogh, he said, is his favorite artist so far.
After not quite an hour, artworks stacked on drying racks, the kindergartners went on to their next activity with a little bit more appreciation for art and artists, and with the knowledge that they, too, can make art.
Art in Action's annual fundraiser, celebrating its 35th year, is on Thursday, March 22, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Computer History Museum, located at 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd. in Mountain View.
The 2018 Art Visionary Award honorees are Adobe Systems, Inc., co-founders Charles Geschke and John Warnock. Tickets are $125 per person until March 9, when they go up to $140 per person.
Buy tickets or get more information online.