During his time in the military, Heber Gutierrez saw the world, but his experience as an opportunity fellow for an art workshop taught him the most about life.
Originally from Massachusetts, Gutierrez moved to San Diego for the U.S. Navy before attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
With a passion for art, glassblowing and especially pottery, he decided to pursue a degree in studio art. He graduated from UTC in May.
“It was the one degree path that I could see that would fulfill everything that I liked,” he said.
Toward the end of his junior year, Dr. Angie To, the head of the UTC Department of Art, recommended that Gutierrez pursue an opportunity fellowship through ArtsBuild—a nonprofit organization that funds art programs and art education in Chattanooga.
Gutierrez applied to SPLASH, an ArtsBuild program that provides art classes to underprivileged children in the Chattanooga area at no cost. After being accepted, he has served as an opportunity fellow for the past two years.
At SPLASH, Gutierrez visits schools and community centers in Chattanooga to teach the fundamentals of art, such as various drawing and painting media, techniques and styles.
“We teach them how art can be fun and how it can fulfill their lives,” he said. “We are doing it in a meaningful way where we are showing how art can be positive and how we can create connections through the art community.”
He mentioned one group of children who attend weekly lessons and surprised him with their extreme giftedness in art.
“They’re learning things that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn when I was their age,” he said. “Some of them are 10 years old and they’re already learning about gesture drawings or learning about oil paintings.”
According to Gutierrez, some of their art pieces sell for more than $1,000. Half of the proceeds for every art piece sold goes toward buying more art supplies, while the other half goes directly to the child artists and their families.
On Fridays, SPLASH conducts art classes at the Maclellan Shelter for Families, a facility serving homeless people in downtown Chattanooga. This was something that Gutierrez said he took the lead on, as he has experience working with the homeless community.
When he was a student at UTC, Gutierrez took an art and nature class where he helped clean up a homeless camp. Not only did the class introduce him to the homeless population in Chattanooga, but he said it taught him how art can connect with nature and how they can benefit from one another.
Now, he creates weekly lesson plans and teaches the shelter’s art classes, allowing him to build relationships with many of the families he meets. SPLASH even celebrated one of the children’s birthdays and gifted him several art supplies—such as watercolors and a sketchbook.
“It just felt so good to watch his eyes light up. It wasn’t anything big, but for him it was something amazing,” Gutierrez said.
He expressed how much he has gained from his time at SPLASH and from teaching art to people who are homeless.
“I think I have learned a lot about myself. I have learned to be even more honorable and to enjoy life,” he said. “I traveled around the world in the Navy and I’ve seen different things, but this project has not only humbled me, it’s grounded me. It’s taught me to appreciate where I am.”
Gutierrez encourages others to attend the SPLASH Summer Arts Festival on Aug. 19 at Miller Park, where there will be live music, arts and crafts, art vendors and more. Visitors will even have a chance to purchase art pieces from the SPLASH kids.