CLEARWATER — Kelly Roshten climbed onto a high step and faced the crowd of adults packing the cafeteria at Skycrest Elementary School.
In jeans and green sweatshirt, the fifth-grader smiled shyly as she lifted up her painting, Face or a Vase Optical Illusion, for the audience of would-be art patrons to consider.
"This is kind of a mysterious one," Ruth Eckerd Hall artist Ian Beck told the crowd as he started the bidding.
"Is it a face or is it a vase?" he teased. "Who'll give me $4?"
This wasn't any school fundraiser. Thursday evening was Night of the Arts, one of the annual highlights of a unique collaboration between Skycrest Elementary and Ruth Eckerd Hall.
In the program, called Passport to the Arts, the school's 650 children immerse themselves in visual and performing arts as a tool to learn reading, writing and math.
The arts curriculum includes Ruth Eckerd staff artists who come to the school to teach. The students also go to performances at the hall.
Principal Sheila Jaquish believes many students learn better using their creativity.
The student body is 64 percent minority, and nearly 40 percent are still learning English.
Thirty percent are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches. Schools with such demographics often struggle academically.
But Jaquish and her staff credit the 7-year-old arts immersion program with helping Skycrest earn an A rating through Florida's school-grading program.
"They got an "A" grade integrating the arts — go figure," said Barbara Hanson, the administrator of the Professional Association of Visual Artists, an umbrella group for Pinellas County artists.
Thursday night Hanson set up a table in the school yard showing children painting techniques.
"This is special," added Elizabeth Minor, a city of Clearwater Cultural Affairs Division programmer at the event.
Other support for the program from the broader community includes the Clearwater Arts Foundation, which helped pay for a project in which many children painted self-portraits on tiles.
The city paid for ceramic artist Josh Riley and silk painter Sara King to come to the event Thursday and demonstrate their arts.
King helped sisters Idalit and Adriana Huerta, 8 and 11, respectively and 9-year-old twins Rachel and Megan Hall make silks.
"This is wet silk," Megan giggled.
"Paint stays in one place, but dye spreads," King said.
The event even drew four high school students who are part of the Clearwater/Nagano Sister Cities Exchange program.
Before the Pinellas students can travel to Japan to spend two weeks with host families, they must do volunteer work.
So Osceola High sophomore Samantha Gray, 16, and Countryside High junior Katie Humbertone, 17, showed children how to make paper origami fortune tellers.
"It teaches them artistic skills," Samantha said.
"Being creative," Katie added.
Back in the cafeteria, Beck and co-auctioneer Jared O'Roarke, another Eckerd Hall artist, kept hawking selected pieces of student art.
"A very weird and mysterious painting that's been done only once at this school," Beck said about Kelly Roshten's Face or Vase.
"Fourteen dollars," Beck said. "Going once. Going twice. Sold for $14."
The winning bid came from Kelly's mom.
Usually, parents bid until they end up with their kid's art, said Gina Sullivan, Skycrest's art teacher and the mastermind of the event.
If someone else makes the highest bid, Sullivan said, the buyer usually considers it a donation to the school and gives the work to the child's parent.
Other work sold Thursday night included kindergartener Liza Mejay De La Cruz's Flowers Based on a Picasso Picture, fifth-grader Riley Podurgiel's Aboriginal Dot Painting and fifth-grader Christian Baxcajay's Wire Fish based on Alexander Calder.
It had taken Sullivan all day Thursday to put the art that was not for sale on display in the cafeteria. But when people trickled out after the auction, fellow teachers helped break it all down in minutes.
"Where is it going?" Sullivan joked. "In my room, into a big pile I will now have to sort out."
Jose Cardenas can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4224.