Trish Roberson is wearing a dress from B. BARNETT. Jewelry from ROBERSON’S FINE JEWELRY. Makeup by JESSICA HUMERICK. Gray velvet chair from HOWSE.
“This one’s a finger painting.”
Peering at a large canvas, the inspection yields hundreds of thumb and fingerprints. Light, slightly swirled blue dollops in indigo, robin’s egg, midnight, cornflower, sapphire and navy mimic a painter’s brush tips and, upon stepping back, coalesce into a close-up portrait of legendary bluesman B.B. King, eyes closed, mouth curled sideways in mid-howl.
“When she came home and told me her teacher said they’d be finger painting, I thought, ‘Finger painting in high school?’” says the artist’s father, Paul Leopoulos, his shrug melting into a smile, eyes lingering over King’s face.
It’s an extraordinary painting and a tangible example of the spirit of its creator Thea Leopoulos, a spirit that permeates the North Little Rock home of the Thea Foundation and infuses its daily mission to ensure the arts are made available in schools throughout Arkansas.
Thea never worked a day for the foundation that bears her name, but as the wall-sized blow-up of her B.B. King portrait in the conference room attests, her fingerprints are all over the place.
“I hate to presume what [Thea] would’ve thought, but I personally am so proud to be a part of this foundation, I can only imagine that she would be as well,” says Michelle Browning, president of the board of directors. “To know that, in her name, countless other people are gaining confidence in themselves and broadening their horizons, I think she’d be very proud.”
Ask any of the movers and shakers connected to Thea Foundation why they got involved — what first inspired them to invest their time or moved them to open their wallets — and invariably they will say it all started with the story that became the movement.
“When Paul tells that story, I’m like, that was me,” says Trish Roberson, board member and co-chair for Into the Blue, the group’s main fundraiser. “I did very poorly in school, but I could entertain. I could entertain everybody and draw and sing and do all of that, but the opportunities weren’t there.
“I love seeing these young people and the way that they just grab hold of their inner person. Their creativity just explodes once they realize, ‘I can do this.’”
Thea Leopoulos’s first two years of high school were relatively undistinguished, with average to below-average grades and a lukewarm attitude toward school to match. But somewhere in her junior year, things changed dramatically. Thea was suddenly much more engaged in school to the point of tackling, successfully, the upper-level coursework she’d previously avoided.
The family never got to witness the full maturation of Thea’s accomplishments. In 2001, over Memorial Day weekend, Thea was killed in an automobile crash at age 17.
In seeking to understand what had brought about such a profound change in their daughter’s academic achievement, Paul and Linda made a stunning discovery. Thea’s recent involvement in the arts — visual art, dance, drama and creative writing — had opened the door not only for her to express her considerable talent, but to shore up her confidence that achievement was possible in other areas, too.
“The arts are a quality of life thing, they are an educational thing, they are a healthful thing, they are all of that,” Paul says. “Purely on the educational side, if they’re integrated into how kids learn, the arts address all the learning styles. And when teachers address every learning style in the classroom, then everyone has a chance to learn and to thrive.
“I would venture to say that [the arts] turn the switch in a whole lot of kids. Our brains are built with the left- and right-brain thing. If you get the left and right brain going at the same time, the learning process is deeper and much more impactful.”
A school counselor by training with a passion for education, Paul wasn’t just speculating on the role art had played in his daughter’s experience. He had a mountain of scientific evidence on his side.
“To hear Paul describe the change that took place in Thea is extremely inspiring,” Browning says. “What’s interesting is that there’s actually research to back it up. What she experienced, everyone can experience if they are given exposure to the arts in some measure by which they can gain confidence. Once young people gain confidence, the options are unlimited.”
“Arts integration is a conduit to deliver facts and information for the process of learning,” says Nick Leopoulos, assistant director of the foundation and Thea’s younger brother. “There are a million different teaching styles out there and different ways teachers can reach students. We’re not saying this is the absolute, but it is certainly a very impactful and very inclusive way to address the multiple learning styles that a student has and can use to their abilities from one subject to another.”
The Leopoulos family decided the best way to honor Thea’s memory was to help other students benefit from arts in the classroom. It was a tall order, particularly given the widespread attitude that arts programs were nice but unnecessary and prime targets for cost-cutting. Undeterred, they launched the venture out of their home with Paul as executive director.
“The main thing that attracted me to Thea was Paul and the family. They’re so connected to the organization and committed to really making it available for so many students,” Roberson says. “There are groups that we’ve been involved with through the years that felt distant from the true mission. But [Leopoulos family members] are all committed at the ground roots of it, and I love that.”
Now in its 17th year, Thea Foundation has grown its programs to address an ever-widening scope of needs. Thea’s Art Closet helps art teachers augment their supplies and make their budgets stretch further. To date, the foundation has awarded more than $1.5 million in art supplies to hundreds of Arkansas classrooms.
The foundation’s Arts Reconstruction program trains teachers in visual arts and strings. Last summer, 90 teachers completed the strings coursework and six schools participated in the visual arts program, ultimately impacting more than 1,500 students.
Thea also hosts a range of art exhibits showcasing both individual schools and statewide contests at the gallery space that’s part of its Argenta headquarters. And, it sponsors public art projects such as Thea Paves the Way, which drew 500 students last year to create chalk art on the sidewalks of the Clinton Presidential Center.
But arguably the most impressive elements of Thea’s programs are its seminal scholarship competition and Arkansas A+ Schools. The former awards 30 scholarships in six categories to students regardless of GPA, test scores or intended major. To date, it’s awarded nearly $2.3 million to students across the state, money that’s multiplied by nearly 30 colleges and universities — including all two- and four-year schools in Arkansas — that match or exceed Thea Foundation awards.
The Arkansas A+ Schools program launched research-based, whole-school teaching methodologies in nearly 20 Arkansas schools. It was so successful, it caught the attention of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, which has recently taken over the program.
“A+ Schools demonstrates how to integrate the arts into a curriculum to make it more vibrant and the classroom a better place to learn,” Paul says. “The university is going to take it and grow it exponentially and do wonderful work with it.”
Roberson sees another payoff to all of this; as a business woman with stints in interior design and jewelry to her credit, she sees firsthand how valuable a trait creativity is in employees and the workplace.
“The reality is, my whole world has been artistic and creative,” she says. “The jewelry industry is such a creative field. In our jewelry business, I choose designers that are unique and different. They were those kids that were artsy and creative who have really made their way in life. It’s not a painting, but it’s a piece of jewelry that they sketch and draw and come up with.”
Glenn and Janet Davis, Dorothy Morris, Michelle Browning, Win and Natalie Rockefeller and Trish Roberson (dress by BARBARA/JEAN) join Steve Roberson, Clark Trim, Jo and Presley Melton, Sharon Heflin and Gert and Wesley Clark to co-chair Thea Foundation’s Into the Blue event.
Through the large front windows of Thea Foundation’s gleaming corner building, Argenta is gaining steam. It’s a neighborhood that’s become a hotbed of artistic possibilities. The architecture and color of the historic district beckons painter and photographer alike, and just up the block, a community theater space provides a venue for theatrical and dance events. On warm weekends, live music floats from nearby bars and restaurants and a forthcoming community plaza lends additional promise for the overall palette.
It’s just the kind of place for Thea Foundation to have set roots, and as Paul looks out on the morning, he’s reflective of how it’s all unfolded. It’s hard not to imagine the bright and hopeful teenage girl who inspired all of this, her smile radiating, a guardian angel on his shoulder.
“We have been, I don’t want to say lucky and I don’t necessarily want to say blessed, although blessed is a good word,” he says. “I knew what I wanted to do, but this has evolved way beyond what I was thinking back then. We’ve had people step in, our board right now is just incredible and different corporations are starting to get what we do and believe in us.
“We went down the road of scholarships as our very first major program and it is massive today and so important in motivating young people to believe in themselves. And to me, that’s our whole deal. When you get kids to believe in themselves, then they take off.”
Jordan Wolf and Elena Petroukhina, art teachers at Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School in Little Rock, have a gig many art teachers long to have: working with motivated students from across the district in a full art curriculum.
“Students are invested in art and a lot of them are really interested,” Petroukhina says. “Challenging students every day through art history, through making projects, a lot of them explore their own ideas. That’s challenging for any artist, not just students.”
But even here, where the arts are front and center, budgets are not unlimited. The duo credits the Thea Foundation with providing the kind of additional funding needed to keep their classes running and students engaged.
“Thea has given me the opportunity to teach in mediums we wouldn’t normally get to buy, because the materials might be more expensive,” Wolf says. “We have a kiln back here and we bought clay through a project that Thea helped fund so that studio art this year had the opportunity to do a unit in clay.”
“Sometimes, with the school budget, we have to sacrifice quality for quantity,” Petroukhina says, “where with Thea we’re able to have paint and get clay and glazes that maybe are not professional artists grade, but just about there. That makes a tremendous difference in the artwork they produce.”
The duo sees firsthand how art classes affect other aspects of their student’s lives and academic experience, too.
“Art is a catalyst to understand something about the world.” Wolf says. “Something you do in art might help you understand something in math, and that might give you more confidence to push yourself to excel or try harder to understand. It’s different for everybody, but what you put into it is what you get out of it.”
Georgeanne Yehling doesn’t remember a “lightbulb moment” that led her to pursue vocal music. In fact, for many years she had no intentions at all of making it a career.
“I grew up backstage at rock ‘n’ roll shows because of my mom’s work in the entertainment industry,” she says. “[Music] is something I always wanted to do, but because I knew about the industry, I was very suspicious of it and self-defeated even before I got there. I was like, ‘Oh, there’s no point.’”
Yehling abruptly changed her mind midway through her senior year at Parkview High School in Little Rock, a decision made so late she scrambled to get auditions at various colleges. Money was at a premium and she came into the process without the retinue of vocal coaches and handlers other applicants had.
She successfully auditioned at Oklahoma City University, then followed that by winning a Thea Foundation scholarship, the $2,000 award being matched by her college. The money was useful, but the validation was invaluable.
“The idea that you can be recognized in your own hometown for something like that and the confidence it gives you to pursue something that can be very defeating was probably a lot more amazing to me than even the money aspect,” she says.
After completing her undergrad in vocal performance, she earned a master’s in opera performance from Wichita State University. Today she teaches at a local academy, guiding students ranging in age from 6 to 80. She’s returning this spring as one of the performers at Into the Blue, Thea Foundation’s main fundraiser.
“Having something entirely homegrown, where there is absolutely no cost to apply and is honestly about come and show us your gift that you’ve been cultivating, is essential to developing the next generation of artists.”
Dorothy Morris has a personality as big as Lake Hamilton and a resume in the arts to match. She’s spent decades in the fundraising game and, as president of the Morris Foundation, has helped invest more than $1 million in worthwhile organizations, many of them dealing in the arts.
She met Paul Leopoulos 10 years ago and, like virtually everyone else, was captivated by the story of Thea and the mission of her namesake foundation.
“[Paul] told me what he was doing and I attended some events that they had and met some of his students,” she says. “He was so impressive. He was giving scholarships in rural communities all around the state of Arkansas and he found the most creative, wonderful young artists.”
Morris was smitten with the organization and the kids who benefited from the money she helped raise, such as the high school football player from Wynne with the angelic voice who eventually landed on Broadway and the Hot Springs ballerina who came home to teach dance to children in the community. It’s a love affair that continues to this day.
“It’s so unique, because they do not go by grades per se,” she says. “They have all these auditions around the state and they pick these kids. They’re not necessarily the best students — they’re not, like, the best grade-wise — but they have this talent and Thea seeks that out. It impresses me.”
Morris endowed a scholarship fund for the organization, just one outgrowth of her support and work on behalf of Thea Foundation. In return, the group will honor her with the Pillar of the Arts Award at this year’s Into The Blue event, just the third such honor ever bestowed.
“I give money to people that really spend their money well, and I think I’m getting a bang for my buck when I give money to Thea,” she says. “They help these young people to be the best they can be, to follow their dreams. It’s wonderful.”
Into the Blue
6 p.m. on Saturday, April 28
UA Pulaski Tech CHARTS Theater
Tickets + Info: