Teaching teens the business side of the arts

“It’s not touchy-feely,“ said Charissa Drengsen, education specialist at Petaluma People Services Center.|

Tucked inside a nondescript business park in Northwest Santa Rosa, Artstart ‒ a Santa Rosa-base nonprofit focused on supporting young people in a career in the arts ‒ features bright splashes of color at the entrance, distinguishing the spot from the other gray, utilitarian businesses sharing the space.

It’s here that Charissa Drengsen, a longtime Petaluma resident and career/education specialist for the Petaluma People Services Center, has been conducting classes to help young artists with an interest in the arts to learn about the business side of creativity. The work Drengsen and PPSC do alongside Artstart is through a program called Resources for Youth Success and Employment. The program is partially funded through the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which seeks to teach young people simple, easy strategies to succeed in what is often a notoriously difficult-to-navigate career path.

That path is one Drengsen became all too familiar with in her younger days.

“I always had a leaning towards the arts,” she says. “I did community theater in Sonoma County when I was 10.”

But as is often the case, Drengson found numerous difficulties growing up in general, along with the challenges of being creative as a teen and an adult.

“High school was rough,” she said. “Becoming an adult was rough. So, my passion as an adult has been wanting to provide support to that age group. That’s my affinity.”

In the early 2000s, Drengsen earned her graduate degree in transformative arts from John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, before running her own business from home while raising a family. When her daughter graduated and moved out on her own, Drengsen was finally able to put her passion for supporting youth into action, conducting freelance workshops and substitute teaching in art classes, as well as doing arts adjunct work.

“When the position at Petaluma People Services opened up, it was an opportunity to bring my creativity to something that’s got a very pragmatic goal,” Drengsen said. “It’s not touchy-feely. It’s more like, ‘How can we build something that helps people find meaning and sustainable employment in their lives?’”

Mary Christensen, 19, is one of Drengsen’s “mentees,” a recent graduate of Petaluma High School who has an interest in the arts as a career. When asked about some of the more practical or tangible things Christensen has learned, she points to Drengsen’s business workshops.

“The workshops center around tools that really help me build on areas where I’ve been lacking in other jobs,” Christensen said, admitting that she often felt like she was unable to establish boundaries at work in terms of hours, occasionally feeling a bit taken advantage of, as well as sometimes stretching herself too thin with other commitments, issues experienced by all young people new to the workforce.

“She’s helped me develop and use my own voice when I’m working,” Christensen said of Drengsen. “That’s just one thing that’s made my time here more successful.”

As we take a quick glance around the Artstart studio space, some truly lovely and professional-looking artwork by Christensen is laid out on a nearby worktable. The pieces are large painted illustrations of various vegetables and aromatics used in cooking. The works were commissioned by Geyserville’s Diavola Pizzeria, apractical illustration of how Drengsen teaches her mentees how to network.

“I try to get the students out in the community, working with different artists and businesses,” Drengsen said.

Renderings of artichokes, red bell peppers, onions and herbs, all in full form as well as in various stages of precooking prep, fill up several canvases. Christensen is clearly proud of her work for the pizzeria.

“I’ve always had an interest in botanical illustrations,” she said.

Drengsen is motivated by the work she does, but also by the hope that one day a creative space like what Artstart has in Santa Rosa will come together in Petaluma. As for Christensen, she says the work she’s done with PPSC and Artstart has helped her realize that her path as an artist will likely also include teaching art to young people and imparting the wisdom Drengsen has given her onto other teens.

“It's the best schooling I’ve ever had,” she said.

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