2022 Recipients of the Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award
When Charlie and Iantha Newton started SPLASH Youth Arts Workshop, the program was a natural evolution of the ways they were already giving back to the community. Every Sunday for eight years, the Newtons and friends would prepare and serve meals in their downtown Chattanooga art studio for 75–150 homeless individuals and families. When they noticed that some of the kids who would come had problems with reading, they began doing art projects together with the kids and saw how transformational art was in terms of their learning abilities, social interactions, and just for having fun.
SPLASH now operates in the old James A. Henry Elementary School on Chattanooga’s west side in what was Charlie’s own 5th grade classroom, so in a way he has come full circle. Charlie grew up in the neighborhood and knew from age 5 that he wanted to be an artist. He took art classes through high school, got a degree in art at UTC, worked for a while as a freelance artist, and then went back to school to earn his MFA at Norfolk State and Old Dominion University.
Iantha grew up in a working-class family of seven in London, England. As a child, Iantha loved art too and would make fashion clothes for her dolls and then as a teenager designed and made real clothes for fashion shows she organized on her own. While she never saw her path to art as a career, art has always been a natural ability and part of her everyday life. She met Charlie in London while he was on a study abroad trip there in 1986. Five years later Iantha moved to Chattanooga and they were married.
After his training, Charlie made a conscious decision to come back to Chattanooga to make his living as an artist. Over the years he had noticed how most African American artists from Chattanooga left, but in Charlie’s opinion, there is something about living and working in the place where you grew up that gives you a sense of freedom and informs your work like no other place does. He never thought of himself as a teacher or mentor, but now looking back, he realizes the ways he has served people in that role, especially by encouraging fellow African American art students.
In the SPLASH studio, Charlie and Iantha have an apprentice-style approach to teaching that gives each individual student what they need to develop the unique talents and abilities they already possess. Working together in the classroom, Charlie’s more direct way with the kids complements Iantha’s more nurturing qualities.
As practicing professional artists, both Charlie and Iantha believe it is important to continue to make their own art so that what they offer to their students comes from a place of authenticity. In their words, “We are just giving what we have to offer—we are giving art. If you let the focus be entirely on the people you are serving, then the community will show you what the needs are.”