Emily Thompson Energizes Youth Art Education at Arts Benicia

Not long after moving to Benicia in 2011, Emily Thompson and her partner, Elan Laporte, got a plot at the community gardens on First Street. “It was there that I met Shelley Dupuis and Elisabeth Gulick, some amazing ladies,” Emily recalls. “Within moments, they had roped me into volunteering with the children’s program at Arts Benicia.” As she became active in local volunteer work, Emily was identified as a dynamo and a person that makes things happen with her enthusiastic nature and infectious smile. As Youth Art Coordinator at Arts Benicia, she has helped grow a program that now includes after-school classes at the Commanding Officer’s Quarters (COQ), Family Art Day programs coordinated with each gallery exhibition, Summer EcoArt Camp, art instruction for Benicia Unified School District’s STEAM Wheel program, and Next Generation, a major, biennial exhibition of youth art. “With our move to the Commanding Officer’s Quarters, the youth program has a new identity for families. I love how Arts Benicia pulls people into this building, which is itself inspirational in a historical, cultural way.”

The after-school program at the COQ was launched last year…

…with local artist-teachers including Lorraine Curtis, who is teaching The Art of Self-Portrait for 5th through 12th graders starting February 29. Youth art classes are held on Thursdays and Fridays so that students have an opportunity to see professional artwork in the galleries. “It was amazing to see the creative work that the kids put together through the course of the classes,” shared Adela Fernandez, mother of enrolled twins. “My kids loved it and always looked forward to each class.”

Emily has been working with Neama Ray, the art teacher at Benicia Middle School, to coordinate an AB Presents exhibition of artwork by Ray’s students this spring at Benicia City Council. “Since our Next Generation exhibition is held every other year,” she says, “this exhibition helps remind our community of the important art programs throughout Benicia.”

Thompson grew up in the Mad River Valley in Vermont. Encouraged by a creative mother, she engaged in art activities during childhood and into high school. She attended Wheaton College, a small private college in Massachusetts. “Wheaton didn’t have sororities or fraternities, but the college did have theme-based houses that you could apply to live in with your friends. We were the art house. Half of us were visual arts majors, the other half were music majors.”  Over the first year the students transformed the house into a gallery complete with art on the walls and musical events. They became a sensation on campus, with the art faculty participating in rotating exhibitions. By their senior year the college paid to install a hanging gallery system and began a fundraising effort featuring the theme house and its residents. Eventually a multi-million-dollar art building was established. “None of us got to use it, but we helped sell the donors on how important the arts are.”

Kids watching a demonstration by 3 artists.

Thompson studied photography as an art student, spending many hours in the small campus darkroom.

Gradually she expanded her work from photography to painting and mixed media. “Andy Howard was my photography teacher and mentor, but my aesthetic was different. I took a lot of portraits and the social life on a college campus was often my subject.” As a painter, her work was colorful, embracing florals, landscapes and nature.

Within a few years after graduation in 2000, she and a friend moved across the country to Ventura, where she became involved in part-time teaching ventures with the City of Ventura’s Cultural Affairs department and Visitors Bureau.  She later worked as director of the Buenaventura Art Association, managing two galleries, and implementing children’s art classes.  She left for Benicia when partner Elan pursued a job opportunity there.

Hired for her second stint as Youth Art Coordinator in 2022, Emily has taught ‘Tinkering” in the schools over the past five years.

“My favorite part about tinkering is that it’s not an art class. It’s about teaching kids to be safe and using their own imagination to create with what they have. I had the opportunity to teach with Bonnie Weidel in a First Five preschool program, and I often think of her and her legacy in Benicia. I loved her method of keeping it simple… the rules, the materials, the lesson, and the kids just make the magic happen. Kids don’t need a lot of instruction,” Emily asserts. “They just need materials and the opportunity to use their ingenuity. Each young person has their own persona that’s expressed through their art. All you need to do is give them a crayon and they’re good to go.” 

For more information about the Arts Benicia Youth program, Family Art Day, after school programs, EcoArt Camp, and the Benicia Middle School exhibition, visit https://artsbenicia.org/youth-art-classes/. Scholarships for tuition-based programs are available from Arts Benicia for students with financial need.

Emily Thompson with son Dylan in front of a palm tree