In 1997 a small schoolhouse in San Mateo opened its doors to teach art to children. The first child was Amber, a little girl with reddish hair who wanted to celebrate her fourth birthday doing art. Her mother and two friends sat around a table ready to create and get messy. They played with tempera paints and pastels and created works that later hung on her wall. This was the beginning of De Colores. A school for children and adults.
In November 1997, the same month the school opened, Irma Velasquez, the founder of the school, faced a life changing challenge. Her son was showing autistic behaviors. She was faced with a dilemma: continue the school or dive into finding out what was going on with her son. She called on a longtime friend and lover of the arts, Kirsten Carpentier. She loved the idea of the school and chose to leave her home in Portland to manage the school while Irma dedicated time to her son’s needs.
The idea of De Colores was to give children a full experience based on Discipline Based Art Education, a methodology developed at the Getty Center in Santa Monica. In the small schoolhouse studio at 450 N. San Mateo Drive, children gazed up at teacher Caroline as they sat crossed legged in a circle. She held a book open to a painting by Rousseau, “Tropical Forest with Monkeys,”and invited the children to comment about what they saw in the bold exotic scene. After the art history session, they reached for pastels, pencils or acrylic paint and created their own masterpiece inspired by Rousseau. The class finished with a critique of their own work, as each child was invited to express in words what they had created with paint. At the end of the one-hour session, parents greeted them with exclamations as each child proudly held up their works.
Over its short history, hundreds of children enjoyed and learned from the passionate art teachers who worked at De Colores. In 2002 the school closed to make room for Wings Learning Center, a school for children with autism. Challenged to provide an effective education for her son, who had been diagnosed with autism in 1998, Irma dedicated the following decade to developing an educational program for a new group of students. Wings Learning Center, now located in Redwood City, California, serves children and adults with autism and communication disorders.
Art continues to bring joy to Irma Velasquez and her family. Her husband Sherman is a pianist and her son Aaron has come to love music and dancing. De Colores re-opened through virtual doors in 2014 with the goal of promoting artists with disabilities and those with artistic abilities across the autism spectrum, whether in the visual or performing arts, music, dancing or theater.