NORTH LIBERTY- It was 5 p.m. on a chilly Wednesday afternoon, and another class was in session. Peyton Gordon, Grant Nidey and Finn Fountain sat together at a paper-lined table as Becky Popelka led the students on a collage using watercolors, salt and decorated paper.
"This is a mixed media project," she began, presenting the materials her beloved "kiddos" were about to employ.
Her program, which seeks to extend Iowa City's richness of art of culture to North Liberty, has been well received. So much so, according to Grant's mom, that when she brought him home from school early the previous Thursday, he was nearly in tears at the realization that Ms. Popelka's art class was only once a week.
Big Picture Gallery & Studio provides a spacious and inspirational setting for the young students. A black wall at the entrance invites kids to draw all over it. Unsurprisingly, it's already nearly blanketed top to bottom with neon doodles. Some eager little artists even went ahead and helped themselves to the fresh, white window sill, but Popelka takes it in stride.
Further fostering her creative environment, a variety of artistic works line the walls and shelves of Big Picture. The gallery is comprised entirely of regional artists from Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa, including retired art teachers and Popelka's friends from college.
"I wanted to provide sort of a symbiotic opportunity for both the people that come here and the local artist and artists that I know regionally," she explained. "The idea is they can exhibit their work and the children and adults that come can also take inspiration from that. They can see that there are these people who are making art in their daily lives as adults."
Students at Big Picture work in ceramics, painting, printmaking, collage and a variety of drawing media. Although she prefers more intimate numbers, Popelka instructs up to 12 students per class and works with three preschool children at a time. Studies include painter's, artist and ceramic studio, the former two being divided into beginning (designed for kindergarten-second grade), intermediate (third-fifth grade) and advanced classes (fourth-eighth grade).
"I use three years worth of curriculum, so that a child could start in kindergarten and take a class every month during the school year and would never repeat the same projects," noted Popelka, the studio director.
The advanced studio, she said, offers students more independence as she serves more as a guide than instructor. One seventh-grade student in particular has recently impressed Popelka with her vivid imagination.
"She creates these characters, and they're incredible," she marveled. "It just flows out of her."?
"I find that, once they get to that stage, they need more autonomy," she added. "And they need to have more control over directing the path that their work takes."
Popelka, who's also taught at the University of Iowa since 2014, offers workshops on days off from school, such as winter and spring breaks, and hosts children's birthday parties as well as wine and paint parties for adults.
"This isn't a traditional school, so they're thinking this is fun time, which it is supposed to be, absolutely," the art instructor said or her enthusiastic young pupils. "But it's also supposed to be a place where serious learning and progress takes place. That's something I've been working with: finding the balance between the fun and the discipline."
Originally from Cedar Rapids, the studio director has a r?sum? steeped with visual arts credentials. Popelka attended Cornel College before teaching art in Cairo, Egypt, for a year. She then returned to Iowa to serve as the K-8 art teacher and Talented and Gifted coordinator in the Clayton Ridge School District for two years. After receiving her Master's of Fine Arts in graphic design at Iowa State University, Popelka moved to Iowa City in 2011 where she met her husband, a professor at the University of Iowa.
Without any local opportunities for professorships, Popelka took an opening at Regina Elementary School. And what at first felt like a deviation from her career path inspired Popelka's true passion.
"I did it for six years and I loved it," she said. "And I realized that I really enjoy teaching younger kids."
The art teacher spent this time building the confidence, connections and experience needed to start her own business. In September 2017, she finally opened Big Picture in North Liberty.
"It's always been my dream to have my own art school and studio, where I can really create the kind of environment that I want, where I have autonomy where I'm building something that will belong to me rather than just building a program that is essentially belonging to an institution," she said.
Through her sister, a North Liberty resident, Popelka saw the city as a perfect location to open shop.
"It's growing a lot, and there are a lot of young families which I thought would really benefit from extracurricular art opportunities," she said. "I also knew that there was nothing like this in this area, whereas there's already a concentration of arts opportunities in Iowa City."
As for what the future has in store for Big Picture, Popelka says plenty of ideas are in the works. The studio's taking part in Beat the Bitter with Creative Spirits: a Winter Sip & Paint, a variation on the wine and paint party, held Jan. 28 and Saturday, Feb. 3, from 2 to 5 p.m. Those interested need to pre-register to join. The art instructor hopes to have a Valentine's Day event and is developing programming for spring break workshops and a summer camp, the latter having been a popular program from her time as a grade school art teacher.
Drawing from those past experiences, Popelka also hopes to establish an annual art show for her students.
"When I was at Regina, I would put on this enormous art show every year, and the kids were so excited about it," she recalled. "I think it really motivated them to create the best work that they could, so that's something I really wanna get set up with Big Picture."
The studio director plans to approach local libraries to find out which would have space to house such an event, which she feels would further facilitate youth arts in the community.
"I keep meeting new students and having new families sign up, and I'm really pleased with how things are going so far," Popelka said. "So I'm hoping that momentum keeps going."