Healing creative scars and building confident kids
Insights from Candice Blansett-Cummins, Wishcraft Workshop (North Center)
Tucked away on a quiet stretch of Damen Avenue, Candice Blansett-Cummins has built a haven for creative children to express themselves and grow into confident young adults: Wishcraft Workshop. The walls are lined with student work and art supplies, and works-in-progress dot all surfaces. Though the space positivity beams from every corner, Wishcraft Workshop was born out of a temper tantrum thrown by Candice, not one of her children. “I had enrolled my son when he was five in an art class, specifically a mixed media art class, for him to develop some of his fine motor skills because he has high functioning autism and really couldn’t stand occupational therapy. And so I needed a way to sneak some extra work in there for him.” Unfortunately, the art class produced anxiety and frustration rather than original masterpieces. After three classes, Candice’s son was barely allowed to choose paint colors for his projects and even told that he couldn’t erase properly. “Once I got frustrated about what was going on with my son, it hit me like a lightning bolt that there had to be a better way to do this.”
She dreamt of a space where children of all experience levels could create something themselves, without fear of judgment or criticism. Once Candice got the idea in her head, she sprung right into bringing it to life. “We got in the car, and we went and drove around looking for commercial spaces to open a studio where there was no wrong answer and where creative scars would be prevented and or healed. Five weeks after that moment, we opened.” While the building was still under renovation, Candice started a website advertising their few class offerings. Before the space was even open for business, a woman approached Candice to throw her child’s birthday party. Though that wasn’t the plan for the space to begin with, Candice agreed, and birthday parties are now a regular part of the Wishcraft Workshop offerings. “The way it’s evolved has really been driven by our customers because I didn’t sit down and build a business plan. All I thought was let’s have some classes. ‘What do I know how to do so well that I feel qualified to teach?’”
What started as a few workshops eventually grew into regular classes, long-term projects, more birthday parties, and an after-school program called Crafter-School. This too came from Candice’s willingness to respond to the needs of the community that Wishcraft Workshop serves. When a local school’s after-school programs’ class sizes were cut, someone approached Candice hoping she’d start a program of her own. At first she was hesitant, but she worked quickly to make it happen. “I said, maybe at the winter break, but I’m going to need some time to figure it out. About 36 hours later, I got in touch with her and said, ‘Okay, we got it figured out!’” Years later, Crafter-School now includes a specific craft for every day of the week, but children are encouraged to pursue whatever creative endeavor interests them most.
The offerings at Wishcraft Workshop are as diverse as their students, including painting, sculpture, sewing, building, knitting, music, and language programs. Giving students autonomy over their own creations is central to the Workshop’s mission. “It’s really important to us that kids have total creative control over what it is they’re making.” Candice created the space in order to heal what she calls “creative scars,” or moments in a person’s life where someone told them they weren’t good enough at being creative. If someone had previously told a child that they’re bad at drawing, providing an opportunity to try another activity, like sewing, can heal the creative scar and even encourage them to revisit the “scarred” medium. “They get the mojo back, so they can come back to the other things that they want to do or need to do with that confidence back intact.”
This focus on supporting children and restoring self-confidence shows dividends in a variety of ways. All students leave Wishcraft Workshop with a unique product of their own creation, whether it’s a cross stitch, painting, or a fully wearable garment. Some students take what they’ve learned and use it in unexpected ways: “We see there are kids that are starting their own businesses after working with us and being exposed to what entrepreneurship is about or being a part of our entrepreneurial programs.” Many families who send older siblings through their classes continue to send their younger siblings. Even for students who do not need after-school enrichment, Wishcraft Workshop still has a profound impact. “There are lots of people who have told us that they put their kids in our programs even though they don’t need after-school care because they like who their kids are when they’ve spent time with us.” In a time when students have to choose between language, sports, academics, arts, and socializing, this is a true testament to the effect Wishcraft Workshop has on these students.
Over the last few years, focus on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) has grown across the country as people fear our children are not being prepared to be competitive in the global workforce. Around 2014, an ‘A’ was added to the acronym to represent the importance of Art. “We got caught up ourselves in the STEM movement, and then when the A was added it was like ‘Yay, we’re included.’” However, this integration of Arts and Science was not new to Wishcraft Workshop. “The reality was that our original mission included references to technology and math and the connections through the creative process, the natural connections to building the skills that you need for those kinds of things.” Everything a student may do at Wishcraft Workshop involves both creativity and analysis. Patternmaking requires accurate measurements, sculpture requires attention to stability and form. As Candice says, “An artist makes a better scientist. A free thinker is going to make a better database developer.” Before opening Wishcraft Workshop, Candice worked in corporate America and understands the need for an integration of critical and creative thinking.
After years of working as a high-level executive, Candice was more than prepared to bootstrap her dream business. “The battles that someone would have to fight as a woman in business, I had already done that and conquered it in some of the toughest places to do it - in fashion, entertainment, technology. By the time I got to where I wanted to do my own thing, I felt pretty unstoppable.” Even with her years of experience, she still had a hard time being taken seriously as a creative person by others in a new community who were unfamiliar with her corporate background. “I found that my opinions were not heard by my neighbors, by the people at the school, I was just the ‘art teacher lady.’” Though it took a little while for people to respect her expertise, her confidence and knowledge propelled her through.
After ten years of business at Wishcraft Workshop and many years in corporate America, Candice has a wealth of expertise that she shares with children and adults alike. As Executive Director of Local First Chicago, Candice sees a number of trends in business that others should take note of. “I see a lot of funding offers and funding models come across my desk that I had no idea existed and that obviously people are not doing a great job communicating.” Like scholarships, much of this money goes unclaimed simply because people do not know that it’s there. Other than tapping into alternative funding, she also encouraged people to collaborate at first, pooling resources and sharing knowledge while the newer business gets established. “I’m seeing a lot of people collaborating right up front, and a collaboration with someone does not have to be a marriage forever. You might partner up with somebody for a while and then split off when you’re able to stand on your own.”
Over its ten years, Wishcraft Workshop has seen hundreds of students come through the doors. Regardless of what these students go on to do once they leave, it is clear that the influence stays with them. “We’re not a school doing standardized assessments. [...] As long as people are happy and kind, caring, they still like to say hi to us on the street, that’s the measure of how we’ve made an impact.” This impact and the desire to keep spreading confidence and creativity to Chicago’s young people is infectious. After setting foot inside, most adults would likely be jealous that a place like Wishcraft Workshop wasn’t around when they were kids. Fortunately, Candice is maintaining and growing the business to ensure that it continues to inspire and enrich generations to come.