There's a wild thing in Jeni Riplinger-Hegsted's studio. A furry, four-foot-tall beast made of foam, wood and wire hovers in the corner, baring his pointed, paper-white teeth in a goofy grin. A blue herring hangs from the center of the ceiling. A giant papier-mâché box of french fries leans against one of three brightly colored walls.
Here, it's easy to forget you're inside a drafty garage at the end of a cul-de-sac, and that's the point. For Riplinger-Hegsted, artistic expression is a transformative experience — one that everyone deserves, but often only the privileged have access to.
As the director of St. Vincent de Paul's Art on the Edge in Coeur d'Alene — a nonprofit that offers art classes to kids and adults, particularly those experiencing homelessness and poverty — she works to ensure that even the most vulnerable in her community can express themselves behind a pottery wheel or with a paintbrush. In August, Riplinger-Hegsted was awarded the Peirone Prize in the Inlander's Give Guide. In the award's fifth year, Kate Burke of the Lands Council in Spokane and Randy Ramos of the Spokane Tribal College also won a Peirone Prize; you can read their stories at inlander.com/giveguide.
People who are homeless or living in poverty "don't have a lot of choice in their life," Riplinger-Hegsted says. "They don't have a choice about where they're living, what they're eating or how their time is spent. But then they come into the studio and it's all about choice; it's all about process. We're focused on letting them have a time of relaxation, where they're just able to play, just able to be free. It's very therapeutic and soothing for what they're going through."
Growing up in Coeur d'Alene, Riplinger-Hegsted imagined leaving her small town and moving to a big city with a thriving arts scene, like Seattle or Portland. Even as a kid, when she grew frustrated with her inability to paint or draw with any natural skill, she still fancied herself an artist. It wasn't until she took her first pottery class in high school that she discovered where her true artistic talent lies.
She continued studying her craft under former Coeur d'Alene potter Tim Musgrove. Later, she started teaching extracurricular pottery classes at her kids' elementary school. She also had a change of heart. When a job opened up at Art on the Edge, a friend encouraged her to combine her passions for art and philanthropy, and apply.
"I realized I wanted to stay here and work on making this community all of the things it has the potential to be," she says. "Coeur d'Alene has a real need for creative outlets for the at-risk and underserved population, so I wanted to be part of that."
Art on the Edge offers after-school classes, a week-long summer camp for kids and a variety of summer workshops in disciplines like painting, weaving, breakdancing and photography. The program survives on a meager budget of $28,000, donated materials and help from dozens of volunteers, including professional artists.
On Monday nights, Riplinger-Hegsted teaches her own course, a women's pottery class. Her students come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Some live in shelters or transitional housing. Some are domestic violence survivors or former drug addicts. Others — those who are paying to take the course — have never experienced anything like that in their lives. The most rewarding part of her job, Riplinger-Hegsted says, is watching those women make friendships despite their differences.
"Once they are sitting down and making art together at the same table, all of that washes away. They're all just women taking a pottery class," she says. "[That's] my piece of the puzzle — offering this experience of art here in the studio — and how that has a lasting effect on them." ♦