By Blake Peterson
UW News Lab
Since opening its doors in September, Bothell’s Cloud 9 Art School has offered dozens of classes and travel opportunities for its students.
But if you spoke with founder and art instructor Charlene Collins Freeman a decade ago, she might tell you that she never thought having a career in art would be realistic.
Born and raised in Italy, Freeman came to the United States when she was 17 to go to college. But while she majored in fine art, she never considered pursuing it. Following graduation, Freeman lived what she calls the “corporate life,” working in retail and administration for decades.
“It wasn’t until my 40s that I started thinking, ‘This isn’t really the path I want to keep working on,’” she said.
With her husband’s encouragement, Freeman began looking into how to best pursue art professionally. She took classes from other artists in the community and learned how they made a living, she said.
Instructing became a reality eight years ago when Freeman began offering lessons at a Kenmore consignment store, which allowed her to utilize the space on Sundays. Though she said initial classes attracted very few students, persistence, as well as pupils, increased as the years progressed.
“The more I achieved, the more confident I got about what I could achieve,” she said.
Eventually, Freeman started teaching at community colleges and art schools around the Seattle area. She began thinking about opening an art school about three years ago and began looking for spaces in 2015.
Things finally came together earlier this year. Freeman leased Cloud 9’s current space in April, signed in July and started renovating in August with the intention of making the facility a welcoming place for both incoming instructors and students.
Doors opened Sept. 5 and classes include watercoloring mindfulness, knitting and more. Eight additional teachers are independently contracted with the school.
Many of Cloud 9’s students and faculty members have known Freeman for years and most credit her, as well as the school, for providing opportunities they might not have otherwise pursued.
Student Marilyn Scanlon said she had never really expressed herself through art until taking classes with Freeman five years ago. Scanlon was inspired to follow Freeman to Cloud 9 and cites her teacher’s support as a reason.
“She’s pushed me in directions I had never been pushed in before,” she said. “She’ll work with any age and any ability and makes it fun.”
Another student, music educator Pamela Bickford, is considering pursuing a second career in art. She said Freeman has been encouraging and has especially helped her market herself.
And since Cloud 9 opened, Bickford said she’s seen students and teachers positively affected too.
“There are lots of opportunities that weren’t being provided that now are,” she said.
Instructors at the facility speak similarly. Liz Abendroth, who specializes in mindfulness and meditation, first met Freeman a year and a half ago through a class.
During sessions, Abendroth talked about wanting to teach mindfulness-related lessons to children. And just a few months later, the school’s founder would ask Abendroth to lead these courses at Cloud 9.
“She’s so enthusiastic and is such a great person and coach for someone if you have an idea,” Abendroth said.
Painting teacher Sarah Crumb, a former student, had been thinking about initiating an outreach program combining nature and art, but wasn’t sure exactly what path to take. In May, she was approached by Freeman to teach at the school.
“This opportunity fell into my lap at just the perfect moment,” she said.
If anything, Freeman wants to continue creating avenues like these for students and teachers alike.
In the next few years, Freeman hopes to expand the school’s curriculum, with creative writing and children’s book illustration among the topics she’s most interested in.
For now, Freeman is enjoying seeing Cloud 9 become a reality.
“I feel like everybody is super excited,” she said. “There’s not a lot in my life that I’m super proud of. But I’m really proud of this school.”
Blake Peterson is a student with the University of Washington News Lab.