Retired teacher’s paintings cast spirit of compassion for underserved youth

Tempe artist Ann Clarke, a retired teacher, uses proceeds from the sale of her watercolor works to assist young people aging out of the foster-care system. — Wrangler News photo by Samuel Voas

Reading, writing and arithmetic weren’t the only subjects Ann Clarke taught to kindergartners through fifth-graders during a 43-year career.

Art was an integrated part of her school district’s curriculum, and so it played a prominent — and valuable — role in her classrooms.

“It’s not a difficult task as a classroom teacher to find realistic ways to build up a child’s self esteem,” said Clarke of Tempe. “I would frame my students’ art and put it around the classroom, and make sure students were part of school-wide efforts to promote art.

“There were students who didn’t excel in all the academic areas but they could excel in being creative and proud and being recognized because of their expressions of art.”

Clarke chose to teach primarily in public schools that had large percentages of students in the free and reduced-price lunch program. She suspects that, over the decades, she had more than a few foster children in her classrooms.

“They were very open to understanding they were worthy little people, and they deserved to have special things in their lives,” she said.

A watercolor work by Tempe artist Ann Clarke.

When Clarke retired in 2016, she combined her commitment to children in need with her love of painting with watercolors, a hobby she had taken up a few years before. A prolific artist who has created 100 pieces, Clarke joked that her family and friends advised her they’d received enough of her work to fill their walls.

Last year, she connected with the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, and decided to contribute several paintings to the organization’s annual fundraiser. That led to a partnership, in which a variety of Clarke’s framed originals are available for purchase online, with 75 percent of each sale going to AFFCF’s Keys to Success program. Visit affcf.org/ artwork to see the paintings.

According to the foundation, approximately 900 youth leave Arizona’s foster-care system every year without the family support and opportunities needed for success. As a result, they are more likely than their peers to drop out of school, become parents before they are ready, experience homelessness or end up in jail.

The goal of Keys to Success is to provide career-development services for youth aging out of foster care so they may discover their potential and a pathway to living-wage jobs. The youth receive help identifying short-term and long-term career goals, preparing for and securing employment, completing education or training that aligns with their plans, developing personal and independent living skills, and connecting to other organizations that provide additional resources.

Qualifying youth must be ages 16 to 21, be in foster care or have been in foster care at age 18, and reside in Maricopa or western Yavapai counties.

So far, 27 of Clarke’s original paintings have been sold to benefit AFFCF, and 36 others — from aspens and Canadian geese to succulents and tabbies — currently are displayed on its Art for a Cause! website.

Kim Searles, AFFCF’s outreach coordinator, said the nonprofit could not be more grateful for Clarke’s talented artistic interpretation and benevolence.

“What Ann’s doing is helping support a program that costs about $1,000 every six months per youth enrolled in Keys to Success,” Searles said. “She could sell her paintings and pocket all the money, but she has been so generous.”

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