SPRING HILL — Eleven-year-olds Kamryn Johnson and Elijah Murphy wiped their muddy hands and announced they had finished making their clay fishbowls.
"Okay, grab a book," offered their teacher.
Kamryn and Elijah chose Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Hello, Fruit Face, settled on a bench in the sunshine and perused, commenting to each other page by page about the 15th century sculptor's unusual creations.
"I'm a Florida-certified art teacher, so everything's academically inclined," Becky Brooks, 48, founder and instructor at Tree of Life Creative Art Workshop, explained.
"It's geared to their individual abilities," Brooks added as five others in the class continued to squish, roll and pinch globs of earthenware clay.
For three years, the commercial artist with a degree in art education from the University of Illinois has been teaching weekday private classes for youngsters, mostly homeschooled students for whom their parents have sought out art skills.
Saturday classes attract public and private school students who don't have art opportunities in their everyday curriculums. Monday classes are geared for special-needs students.
"My workshop is ... not a fancy-schmancy art studio," Brooks said. "It's a safe place for kids to create and learn about art in an atmosphere of respect and kindness and creativity."
While the physical workshop is a standalone block building, the area for exploration and inspiration extends to the surrounding woods.
Classes may work with clay, metal, papier mache, oil paints, colored pencils, charcoal, or pen and ink.
"We're going to work with clay today," Brooks announced to a class on a recent Thursday morning. Ten-year-old Sarah Rice whispered, "Yay."
No hand went up at the question, "Does anybody not like to get dirty?"
Constructing a fishbowl was the goal — but whatever kind of a fishbowl each student envisioned. To prompt creative juices, Brooks showed off a finished bowl in the shape of a turtle.
"I can show them a technique, give them a subject, and they'll all turn out differently," she said.
Kamryn proved her right, aiming to pinch clay into a puffer fish.
"I touched one in the ocean and, poof," he said, puffing his cheeks to demonstrate.
Another youngster screwed googly eyes on an attempted turtle that transitioned into a, hmm ... . A shark? A rabbit? She said she would decide as the work progressed.
The pieces would sit for two weeks to dry before going into 2,000-degree kiln for firing.
"Blah, I don't like that," Sarah said of the wait time.
In the meantime, the children moved on to another art media, after cleaning up. Students clean their work space and organize materials they have used after each session, learning responsibility and taking ownership of the workshop, Brooks said.
Learning ranges beyond the walls.
"We take nature walks and find things and draw them," said Brooks, whose own artworks in pencil, charcoal and paint focus on nature and animals. "We play. We climb trees, play in the sand, create games. I see everything as a learning experience."
Each student comes to class equipped with a professional-grade sketchbook, in which they have done their own work during the week.
"I don't grade them, but I make comments," said Brooks. "It's a growth thing. I get to see how a kid works, their personality, so I know how to work with him."
Brooks photographs each child's finished projects and posts the photos in an online portfolio. She stages an annual art show in which every student can exhibit his or her work.
Hands-on classes — skill levels 1, 2 and 3 — run 1 1/2 hours one day a week for eight weeks, $120 for an eight-week session. Daily weeklong summer camps during June, themed and grouped by ages, are filling up at $160 per week. Classes are limited to 10 students each.
Brooks also teaches an evening group class in drawing for adults.
As for what's next, the artist said, "I have thousands of ideas. I can make a project out of anything."
Contact Beth Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.