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Escuela: All shook up in Villa Grove

Article by Marcia Darnell

Local artists – September 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Eight llamas, seven sheep, a dog, a couple of cats, two kids, assorted rabbits, and a home that can, and often does, sleep 20. The household of Jeff and Amber Shook is in constant turmoil and they thrive on it: “We just had 25 kids here for a week,” says Amber Shook, laughing.

The couple, artists in their own right, teach classes and seminars that often resemble summer camps. One, a drama class, brings 25 children to their home for a week. The kids write a play, assign roles, build and decorate sets, make costumes and, on the final day, perform their creation for their families. Along the way, they are exposed to painting, sculpture, pottery and other media.

Next year’s class will involve puppeteering. “Our main thing is letting kids know that they don’t have to have a boring life,” Amber explains. “They don’t have to work a job they don’t like. They can concentrate on what they enjoy and find a way to make a living at it.”

Although children are a big part of the Shooks’ lives, their Escuela gallery and (as its name implies) school in Villa Grove is also the site of adult classes and conventions.

SpinFest is their yearly gathering for spinners and Uvapapa is an annual pottery gala that last year drew more than 200 people. This year’s Uvapapa, scheduled for Sept. 7 and 8, will have a Raku focus for the serious artists, hands-on demonstrations for the public, and live music for the party animals (Tents and RVs are welcome; 719-655-2343 for more information).

Escuela itself is part of the couple’s artistic portfolio. They’ve remodeled and added to the original structure to create the current gallery and school.

One of the more striking touches is a wall of the dining room, which resembles a cliff dwelling. “I was going to paint a mural,” says Jeff, “but after I looked at a few Georgia O’Keefe works and visited Mesa Verde, the project evolved into this.”

The work is proportional to the actual Anasazi dwellings, and it’s more than just a display. One of the openings leads to the couple’s loft bed. (A stairway provides easier access.)

The younger Shooks, Jessica, 13, and Amanda, 8, are also professional artists. They make jewelry and sculptures they sell at fairs. The family also creates together; Jeff proudly exhibits a hat he wears to ski. Each member of the family contributed something to its design: spinning, weaving, beading and stitchery.

The Shooks have been in Villa Grove 14 years since moving from Manitou Springs. Amber attended the University of New Mexico and the University of Northern Colorado and earned degrees in sociology and psychology. Jeff is a trained electronics technician who served in the Air Force. They met, appropriately, in an art gallery.

Their school and gallery took years to develop. “We used to spend 35 weekends a year selling our art at fairs,” Jeff says. “This is better for our family.”

Their family includes the collection of animals who also provide material for the spinning wheels. The Shooks’ work includes pieces made from the coats of llamas, sheep, angora rabbits, and even dogs.

Some dog owners like to have small rugs or blankets, for the animal’s bed, made from the dog’s own fur, Amber says. And items made from some breeds’ fur, like Samoyed, sell well.

Escuela also displays and sells other artists’ work, and the couple still travels to a few fairs and shows every year.

Despite the Shooks’ careers as artists, curators, parents, teachers and zookeepers, the couple devotes many hours to volunteer work. Amber works with high school students through a program called Education for Life, based in Colorado Springs. She also conducts tours of Escuela every spring for students throughout the San Luis Valley. They come from as far away as Del Norte and La Jara, Jeff says proudly.

He is part of the Villa Grove Area Merchants Association, a highly popular group. Monthly meetings draw 40 of the area’s 150 people. The association’s recent projects include building a town park and starting a recycling program.

“We have community, out here in the middle of nowhere,” Jeff says, “where everybody’s a city runaway.” He also serves on the Saguache County Planning Commission. “It’s ironic,” he says, “that we have to tighten some regulations here, because the surrounding counties have tightened theirs, and people are moving here to escape that.”

He stresses that he wants to change things as slowly and as little as possible. “I think of it as quality control,” he says. “You want to protect a way of life, but you can’t limit who can live here by economic standards.”

Preserving quality of life is a mission for Jeff and Amber Shook. Teaching children, uniting neighbors and showing others the best way to have fun in life is their ultimate creation.

“We definitely treasure community,” Jeff says. “We could all be hermits and live our own lifestyle, away from everybody else, but we know the value of community. It’s fun.”

Marcia Darnell lives in the San Luis Valley with no kids, llamas, rabbits, sheep, or artistic ambition.