Sue Smith explains drawing and design principles while evaluating a student’s artwork at Kaleidoscope School of Art in Barrington.

Kaleidoscope School of Art’s Colorful Approach

A little imagination goes a long way at this Barrington oasis, where artists of all ages can explore and create alongside talented instructors.

Sue Smith explains drawing and design principles while evaluating a student’s artwork at Kaleidoscope School of Art in Barrington.
Sue Smith explains drawing and design principles while evaluating a student’s artwork at Kaleidoscope School of Art in Barrington.

Iucked away in a residential neighborhood in Barrington is a building full of colorful artwork, sturdy easels and plenty of passion for creativity. The Kaleidoscope School of Art, 316 W. Main St., offers more than 175 classes year-round for students of all ages, from four-year-olds through seniors.

“Kaleidoscope means an array of color,” says founder Jill Funk. “I wanted something happy, joyful and very colorful.”

What a colorful place it is. The school covers most any media imaginable, including oil painting, watercolor, drawing, mosaic, pastel, cartooning, sculpting and pottery. There are classes that teach students how to illustrate wildlife with pen and ink, palette knife drawing, and even a course dubbed “Drawing for Dummies.”

The idea for the school came from Funk, who met her late husband, Dan, during art school in the 1960s, and who once taught clay sculpting out of her home. “It was wonderful,” she says. “For 20 years, I taught classes for everyone from grade school students to adults. I sent posters around to spread the word. The response was good.”

The couple moved from Cleveland to Barrington in 1972, when Dan accepted a position as vice president at food manufacturer Sara Lee. In 1986, the couple decided to open a school that offered artistic diversity.

“Besides clay, I wanted other teachers to have the opportunity to come in and teach painting and other mediums,” Funk says. “I wanted students to be able to learn drawing, painting, cartooning and other forms of art.”

With their own money, the Funks rented a house on Cook Street for their school and quickly outgrew the space. In fact, when it first opened, people sometimes lined up around the block just to register for classes. “I had hopes that it would get this big,” Funk says.

Seven years ago, the school moved to its current location, a three-story Victorian home that offers visibility from the road and lots of program space. Clay and pottery classes are taught in the basement, while children and adult classes are taught on the first and second levels.
It’s a warm and welcoming environment, where art becomes more than a creative expression.

“I feel art comes from the soul,” Funk says. “It’s very rewarding and therapeutic. After Dan died, all I did was work on my art, and it sure helped me. Some of the ladies in my class have said this is better than going to a psychologist. It makes them happy, and they look forward to coming to class every week.”

Those who work at the art school give its leader credit for creating such an inviting learning environment. “Jill’s a true matriarch,” says Alayne McNulty, an instructor and curriculum coordinator. “She embodies what this place represents. It exists because she dreamt it. She’s a gentle leader and truly cares about everything we do here. We’re the best we can be because she is always so supportive.”

And, it’s a family affair. Funk’s son Randy is the school’s manager. Two other sons, Robert, a general contractor, and Christopher, an accountant, have other full-time work but lend a hand at the school whenever called upon. “We all work well together,” says Funk.

The school offers programs year-round: six-week sessions for both adults and children in the fall, winter and spring, and 10 weekly workshops in the summer. Class sizes are small, typically just five or six students.

“We pride ourselves on individual attention,” says Funk, who relies on word-of-mouth to recruit new students.

“It can be a peaceful place for many people,” McNulty says. “The students really enjoy the process. I teach many young children who are introverted. They like to nestle in and do work and not talk the whole time. For them, it’s a safe place.”

The school employs approximately 20 full- and part-time teachers, each with a variety of educational and practical teaching experience. Funk teaches clay, while other instructors concentrate on watercolors, oils or other media.

McNulty has worked at the Kaleidoscope School for 14 years, after having taught at the Art Institute of Chicago. One day, she was buying bagels in a neighborhood bakery when she noticed an art school directly across the street. She popped in to see it for herself, and was eventually hired to teach.

“I love the people here – the students and the staff,” she says. “It’s a joy to experience the freedom to create, and leave everything else outside the front door. The kids especially are curious to learn new skills. It’s fun to see them reach that ‘aha’ moment. It’s exciting for me to see them get excited about what they’re accomplishing.”

Many students come from nearby communities, including Barrington, Bartlett, Crystal Lake, Lake in the Hills and Palatine.

“There are some children who don’t do well in school, but they come here, and all of sudden, they see improvement in their schoolwork,” Funk says. “We encourage them emotionally and psychologically. Art can even help people who are dealing with medical problems.”

Among those students are adult and pediatric cancer survivors, heart patients and those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Some students juggle art classes with their chemotherapy schedule. “For me, this isn’t about making money,” Funk says. “I want to be there for those in need. It’s so heartwarming to see the impact we’re making with our students.”

There have been challenges over the years, mostly due to the recession, but Funk remains positive about her work. “It’s been very tough, but we’ve survived,” she says. “Sometimes we’ve had to cancel classes, other times we’ve only had two sign up for a class, which barely pays the teacher. But what we’re doing is so important. We’ll be fine. We’ll make it.”

The school is taking steps toward growth. Next spring, Kaleidoscope will begin offering online registration, and Funk intends to file for nonprofit status, which should provide a boost for securing much-needed sponsorships and donations. It’s a big step for a small organization that has, in the past, offered scholarships for students in financial need.

“It’s exciting and scary all at once,” Funk says of the changes. “We used to spend $10,000 a year on scholarships for those in need, but we haven’t been able to do that since the recession. It will be wonderful to offer that again.”

The school hopes to add new offerings to its class lineup, including jewelry and stained glass. Funk’s future dream is to open satellite schools.

At the end of each summer, the Kaleidoscope School hosts an evening reception to showcase the students’ work for family and friends. It’s a festive mood as all three floors are jammed with vivid displays of art, and a local cartoonist draws caricatures of willing participants.

“We have so many people here that it’s hard to get through,” says Funk. “It’s a wonderful evening. The parents are so proud, as well as the children. The most exciting thing is to meet a parent at the show who is a former student. Many students come back to visit after they leave.”

She and Dan were married for 60 years, before he passed away in 2009, following a battle with Alzheimer’s. Funk says her husband would be proud of the impact being felt at the educational institution they began.

“Dan loved to teach drawing to children and adults,” she says. “He was a big part of this school, and there’s a void without him. But his presence is still here. I can feel it.”