‘Brilliant Brushes’ brightens Astoria

by Robert Mitchell

The Salvation Army’s music programs for children are legendary, but what about kids who don’t want to sing or play a musical instrument? At the Astoria, N.Y., Corps in Queens, they can join a children’s painting and art program known as “Brilliant Brushes” instead.

“It’s been successful because a lot of kids in the community want to express themselves in a different way than music and they enjoy painting,” says Lieutenant Alex Vargas, the corps officer in Astoria. “It gives them an outlet for creativity. They love it. They enjoy it. We try to do a lot of different things.”

Vargas bought canvases, brushes, and paint and started out instructing 10 kids. When another class started six months later, he had 15 eager pupils sign up between the ages of 8 and 13. They meet at the corps on Wednesday nights under his direction.

Brilliant Brushes was originally funded through Divisional Headquarters but is now self-sustaining after the young artists auctioned off their “masterpieces,” as Vargas calls the artworks. There also is a one-time fee of $40.

Painting themes have included creation, Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer scenes, and Valentine’s Day to promote friendship and Christian love. With the approach of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, a recent theme was Lent.

“They could paint the cross, or it could be Calvary, or it could be the tomb. It could be a flower, which symbolizes life,” Vargas says.

While the class includes some non-Christian children, Vargas tries to provide “spiritual guidance” through the activity and remind them where their creative talent comes from, as soothing Christian music plays in the background.

“When you start seeing your progress, and your talent, that means the talent was put in you by the Holy Spirit, but you don’t know until you actually start working on it,” he says.

Parents love the class, Vargas says, because many of the budding artists have built up their confidence through painting.

“I always tell them to look at when they first started and compare that to right now and the difference in how they mix colors and paint. When they finish a painting, I always try to make them really proud of their work. That’s why we call them masterpieces. We are God’s masterpieces.”

In the fall, the class painted pumpkins and learned that everyone is different and unique yet created in God’s image.

“He made us one of a kind,” Vargas says. “Even though we look the same as human beings with two eyes and a nose and two ears, we are all different.”

The Astoria Corps is also home to a successful sewing program that involves 10 to 15 people on Thursdays. It was started several years ago under Major Claudia Germain, who still teaches the class.

Vargas says the sewing class costs just $35 a year and is a good training ground for a possible job in the community.

“A lot of the people coming into the sewing program have learned that we’re a church and the church is growing,” he says.