The Scarlet Macaw takes flight

Published 10:23 am Wednesday, March 12, 2014

 Nifodora Elias works on an abstract watercolor in The Scarlet Macaw Community Art Center. BELOW: Detail from a painting by Doug Miller II. (Leader photo/JILL McCAUGHAN)

Nifodora Elias works on an abstract watercolor in The Scarlet Macaw Community Art Center. BELOW: Detail from a painting by Doug Miller II. (Leader photo/JILL McCAUGHAN)

SAWYER — Native to the tropical forests of the Americas, the scarlet macaw is known for its vibrant rainbow of exotic plumage. True to its namesake, The Scarlet Macaw Community Art Center provides an exotic oasis of color and warmth for those who pass through its doors.

Upon entering the historic building located at 5888 Sawyer Rd., one cannot help but be captivated by the array of artwork that fills nearly every space on the walls.

“It’s everything. We don’t say, ‘Art is…’ We’ve got digital prints, photographs, pastels. You name it, we’ve got it all,” said Nifodora Elias (formerly Krumrie), who first opened The Scarlet Macaw as an artist’s studio in 1994. The business moved to its current location in 2002.

Over the years, The Scarlet Macaw has evolved into something far more than just a space for artists to work. It is also a gallery, an art education center, a reading and reference library, and the home of what Nifodora calls “The Un-Concise History of Sawyer.”

The building, which dates back as early as the 1870s, is 110 feet long but only 22 feet wide, providing a perfect space in which to display a wide variety of artwork.

“Little by little, we’ve invited artists to exhibit on our walls,” Nifodora said. “Right now, we’ve got two international artists, two national artists, and then we have some really fantastic local artists, and we have beginning artists as well,” Nifodora said.

Very soon, however, the current exhibits will be taken down to make way for the annual student art show.

“In April, we’ll have our tenth elementary school show,” Nifodora said. “All of this gets cleared out, and we hang the kids’ artwork. We offer it for sale. We’re the only ones in the area to do that. The kids get 50%, and the school gets 30%, and the children have a wonderful time. And then, in June, our regular artists come back in.”

As an art educator as well as an artist, Nifodora welcomes children into the gallery, hoping they will feel at home.

“That’s what I have always wanted— to have children feel comfortable here,” Nifodora said. “This isn’t your traditional gallery, but it’s not your traditional art center either. Kids in the community can just come in and play—as long as I’m not teaching.”

Nifodora also provides a more structured educational environment in the form of summer art camps.

“We try to fill our summers up with art activities for kids. We had a teen art camp this year that did all the graffiti on the sidewalk and created an interactive piece,” Nifodora said. “This is a wonderful place to make messes. The fact that it doesn’t have carpeting, it’s not all finished and refined. It’s a pretty relaxed area, all in all. I say, ‘Come in and make messes, have fun, come and play.’”

Art camps are held every week starting in late June. They run from Tuesdays through Fridays, from 10 a.m. until 12 p.m. All of the materials and a snack are provided each day. Nifodora also teaches classes, which typically run 1 ½ to 2 hours long.

While The Scarlet Macaw provides a relaxed atmosphere in which children can develop a relationship with art, Nifodora does not focus solely on teaching children.

“I started 32 years ago teaching at the River Valley Senior Citizens’ Center, and I have been teaching senior center classes ever since,” Nifodora said. “Since my niche is art, I’ve been able to work with all of the populations across the board, from preschoolers to senior citizens. I also work with special populations.”

Nifodora’s own work is also on display at the gallery. While she works primarily with watercolors, visitors to the gallery can also see some of her oil paintings. Althhough she was trained in figurative painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, she embarked on a more abstract course in January of 2013.

“The pieces I’m doing now are a sort of an introverted metamorphosis. This evolution’s been fun. I like to play with my viewer, so there are things hidden within the paintings,” Nifodora explained. “You begin a dialogue with the piece. That’s why I say that I love to engage the viewer. It’s like my educational style, too. If I can meet you where you are, and hook you to stand a moment longer, to be able to be a little more empathetic with what’s going on with the piece, that’s what I like to do.”

Because the building is the oldest one in Sawyer, Nifodora has also reserved a space in The Scarlet Macaw for photos that depict local history.

“The building itself is a magnet for Sawyer’s own history. I don’t lay claim to any of that whatsoever. It walks in the front door,” Nifodora said. “I’m not a historian or much of a history person, but within this environment, it demands attention. It just does. It’s really been great that there’s just one place where things can really come together.”

The Scarlet Macaw is also a space where people can come together with art. It is open from 12 to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. More information about their camps and classes is available by calling (269) 363-1832 or by visiting The Scarlet Macaw Community Art Center’s Facebook page.