By Christina Autry

Thomas Cleveland and his daughter Amber Cleveland have carved out a creative space in Spring Branch for artists of all ages wanting to improve their skills and overcome artistic barriers.

“I enjoy easing the pain involved with the creative quest of being an artist,” Thomas says, as he quickly inspects the progress of artists at work, moving between students’ work areas while responding to questions and providing guidance.

As I sat at a work space, typing notes about the Houston School of Art and Design, Thomas remained an object in motion, demonstrating artistic techniques and lessons to adult students, a term which came to include myself. Amber worked with young painters in the adjacent room; all were hard at work.

“Everyone knows how to draw; we can all form letters while writing. I don’t teach people how to draw. It’s more about how to see, than how to move your hand. If you don’t see it, you can’t draw it,” Thomas says succinctly, giving me the impression that he has shared this insight more than once before.

“Draw a chair,” he directed. Obediently I outlined the frame of a basic chair: 4 legs, a square seat, and a thin back. “Now I’ll draw a chair,” he informed me once I was done. He then sketched a rolling chair with multiple wheels around a circular frame.

Thomas put into words the insight behind this mini-lesson: “We all have various symbols in our minds that represent objects. But these symbols can get in the way of our perception, and cause us to draw what we think we see, rather than what is there.”

This was a first baby step toward what Thomas calls “building visual vocabulary.” Artists at the Houston School of Art and Design are encouraged to use taught skills to go beyond their assumptions and conventions, in favor of truly perceiving the world around them.

Within the small group setting of the studio, Thomas and Amber can provide one-on-one support while still allowing students to benefit from the company of other artists. You won’t see students working on the same projects, or all following along as an instructor dictates step-by-step. The studio vibe, for adults, is more like a shared space where students can work on projects they are passionate about, with access to quality instruction.

“My instruction is based on each student’s level,” Thomas explains. It’s this individualized attention that makes the Houston School of Art and Design unique. Students, whether they are adults or youth, are encouraged to work toward their own specific goals, whether through drawing, painting, computer graphics, mixed media, or other mediums.

Thomas and Amber took over the school in 2016 from a previous owner, after running a Cypress-based art school called “The Artist Within” for more than 10 years. The Cleveland father-daughter duo now operate and teach at both studios.

Amber teaches and handles the technical aspects of running the business, while Thomas develops the curriculum and teaches. Often, Amber takes instruction beyond the four walls of the school, into senior homes and into the Spring Branch community.

One of Thomas’ own artistic endeavors has centered around designing commemorative coins. This journey originated in Houston, when Thomas’ design was chosen to be printed onto Houston’s metro bus coins in 1991. Since then, his portfolio has grown to include the $100 Platinum Freedom Eagle coin, a buffalo nickel for the Lewis & Clark Westward Journey series, a silver dollar honoring disabled veterans, and more. Designing the Dolley Madison gold coin brought Thomas to the White House, to meet Laura Bush, a highlight of his career.

“Zombucks,” a line of coins jokingly intended for use during the zombie apocalypse, feature Thomas’ zombification of Lady Liberty, who carries the head of a zombie in place of an olive branch on a 50 cent piece.

“Being an artist is a hard living. In the past, I struggled with perfectionism. But when you gain more experience, you learn what to sweat about, and what to let go,” says Thomas.

This intuition is something he helps instill in his students, ages five and up. The school typically serves between 40-60 students per month, in addition to making good use of school holidays for art camps. Weekly summer programs give students from K-12 ten hours per week of instruction and practice in the medium of their choice.

For Thomas, the reward comes in those “aha” moments, as he says, “when we teach students a technique, and they realize it’s not magic, but a tool that they now possess.” Building students’ connection with the greater Houston art scene, entering shows, winning awards, and simply growing their confidence are all part of the heart behind the school.

The Clevelands, through pursuing their passion for art and supporting aspiring artists, put life into their personal motto, “Real artists don’t starve!”

Houston School of Art and Design
1270 Conrad Sauer Dr #105, Houston, TX 77043