There's a wild thing in Jeni Riplinger-Hegsted's studio. A furry, 4-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.
People who are homeless or living in poverty "don't have a lot of choice in their life," she 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'd always 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 — which includes Riplinger-Hegsted's salary — 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." ♦
Name: Jeni Riplinger-Hegsted
Position: Program Director of St. Vincent de Paul's Art on the Edge
I give back because: I believe that's why we're all here. I give back because I feel like that's part of my purpose on this planet. It's my way to contribute to our community.
I look up to: Dian Hanson. She was our board president [at Art on the Edge] when I was hired, and she was my son's first-grade teacher. I have never known a person to live a life so selflessly and give so much. I have never once heard her complain or seek any recognition for herself. She always is just doing things for the greater good.
I wish: that the arts would be embraced and supported, that Coeur d'Alene would have a thriving local arts scene so that artists would continue to stay here in our community.
On Sept. 12, Art on the Edge hosts "Emerge," its first show for professional artists, at the Wiggett Building on Fourth and Lakeside from 5 to 11 pm. The show will feature work from the dozens of local artists who've volunteered to teach at Art on the Edge over the years. Visit facebook.com/emergecda for more information.