Flavors, Textures, and Colors Combining Visual and Culinary Arts to Meet Students Where They Are

By Justin Christensen-Cooper

Editor’s Note: At MAEIA we are dedicated to advancing access to quality arts education for all of Michigan’s students and one effective way to achieve this is partnering schools with community arts organizations. Justin provides us with a description of Art in the Loft’s model for innovative practices for students, educators, and the greater community. Enjoy!               ~ Joni Starr


Up in Alpena, MI at Art in the Loft, we believe that art is for everyone, so we purposefully create programs for and with everyone. This way of thinking has guided us to design a series of arts programming that is geared for our local schools and students to help supplement their education and their way of living. Like many, I think the arts certainly are a universal language, accessible to all regardless of age, background, or ability. They provide a means for students to express themselves, explore their imaginations, and connect with their peers in a deep and meaningful way. The inherent inclusivity of the arts fosters a sense of belonging and community, breaking down barriers and inviting students to participate and provide meaningful contributions for themselves and classmates. With that in mind, we don’t create arts programming in a vacuum, we take a fully collaborative approach in listening to many voices and identifying varied needs.  

Every one of our programs at Art in the Loft begins with the essential conversation recognizing that not all students engage in the arts, or anything for that matter, in the same way or at the same pace. Arts programs must be thoughtfully designed to accommodate the diverse needs and learning styles of students, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to thrive and grow creatively. Inclusivity in the arts means not only welcoming everyone to participate, but also ensuring that each student has the resources and support they need to fully engage and benefit from their own creative expression. This requires a tailored approach that accounts for factors such as cognitive abilities, physical limitations, and cultural backgrounds. At Art in the Loft we do this by providing a supportive and adaptive environment, where our arts educators empower students to explore their artistic potential in ways that resonate with their unique interests and abilities. This approach has been found to foster a sense of confidence and self-efficacy that extends far beyond a students’ time at the Loft. For example, our REACH program is the intersection of these ideals and is where artistic intent meets our community students where they are, not where we think they should be. 

REACH (Recognize Everyone’s Abilities and Creative Hearts) is an intensive culinary arts series inspired by the visual arts and developed for students that attend Pied Piper school in Alpena. Every student at Pied Piper is diagnosed with a cognitive or physical impairment and are provided with the care and aid they need to be successful in a learning environment. These students range in age from three years old to 26 years old. The Art in the Loft facility provides an environment that can accommodate the individual interests and needs of each student, facilitating a customized learning experience. It has an elevator and handicap accessible restroom. The kitchen and classroom are each equipped with a hearing loop system that can send an audio signal to a student’s hearing aid, as needed. 

REACH lessons focusing first on the principles of design combine with hands-on culinary and cooking classes. Our instructors and teaching artists draw inspiration from the visual arts while teaching students basic culinary techniques, bridging the gap between artistic exploration and practical life skills. Each REACH student experiments with flavors, textures, and colors while developing fine motor skills that enhance cognitive abilities and cultivate a sense of confidence. Through hands-on experiences in the kitchen, students not only learn the art of cooking but also develop essential social and cognitive skills paving the way for differentiated learning unique to each student. 

The current session of our Pied Piper REACH program provides services to 20 of these unique students, ages 15 to 25, over a span of nine weeks. The program brings together local professional teaching artists, exhibiting artists and Pied Piper students in a creative environment, filled with light, color, art, music, and aroma; fully engaging all the senses. Each student creates their own visual artwork, using a variety of mediums, while learning about the basic elements of design, drawing, color, and shape. Students see how these principles can also be applied in the culinary arts by creating food that is visually appealing and learning valuable life skills involved in following recipes, using basic kitchen tools and making accurate measurements; all while collaborating with others in the preparation of food to be enjoyed together. 

Throughout the sessions, students also work with a photographer to produce and photograph their own works of art, some of which are then enlarged onto scrims and displayed in the storefront windows of downtown Alpena businesses. In collaboration the Alpena Downtown Development Authority, a sample of the student’s artwork is also displayed in the windows of vacant storefronts. All the student artwork is displayed at Art in Loft, thus allowing students to enjoy the experience and pride of participating in an art exhibit. Families and friends are invited to the exhibit, along with downtown business owners and other guests. Students use their newly learned culinary skills to prepare appetizers for the guests. Using this arts-based, hands-on program, students not only experience the joy of creating art and learning new skills; they also experience the feeling that they are part of project which makes a visible contribution to the artistic culture of the Alpena community.

As a certified art teacher, I am the lead instructor for the visual arts portion of the REACH series. I introduce students to the principles and elements of design in art. With the help of other local teaching and exhibiting artists, students learn art techniques ranging from basic drawing, three-dimensional design and texture recognition through a series of intensive art lessons spanning the nine-week program. Students learn to tell a story, transmitting the tactile, visual and emotional sensations of the culinary experience through the artworks they create. 

Our REACH coordinator and culinary arts instructor, Denise Cooper, helps students apply the design principles they learn and apply it to their food preparation. Ms. Cooper (or Mom to me!) is a retired Alpena teacher with over 35 years of experience. She has a passion for the arts and for cooking, and a skill for turning the kitchen into an artist’s studio, where students are engaged with the form, texture, and color of the natural ingredients as medium for their culinary masterpieces. 

The REACH program is unique in its partnership as well, not just its subject matter. The program is developed to meet the mission of Pied Piper school while enhancing access to the general education curriculum. Immersing students into the community is an important aspect of this mission and the REACH program does just that, while providing the satisfaction and enjoyment of arts-integrated learning. Pied Piper’s mission states: 

“We believe in the worth of all individuals; and by creatively combining measurable goals and innovative teaching, we will provide an educational environment that will improve the quality of life for our students.”

Another important partner in this work is the Michigan Arts and Culture Council. This program benefits from an Arts in Education grant awarded to Pied Piper school. 

Because the program involves a wide range of activities and art media, from painting to photography, and culinary arts to collage, each student has the opportunity to gravitate to the activities that spark their individual interests. Our teaching artists have found that this happens very naturally; as students engage in each approach and media, they become comfortable with exploring their own interests and creativity through the variety of mediums.  An extremely proud moment exemplifying this approach came from a severely, cognitively impaired, 16-year-old with autism. (In this telling we will call her Lyn, however, this is not her real name.) Lyn did not engage well with other teachers or peers in any setting. Lyn’s response to new experiences was to rock silently in her chair while covering her ears. She was comforted by this habit; however, it hindered her ability to interact and engage with others. During the beginning of the REACH program, she showed no interest in the visual art activities, learning recipes or being involved in other activities. Gary Hollingsworth, a resident artist and photographer, noticed her interest in the photographs being taken during each week. Gary began to interact with Lyn as he showed her the photos he had taken. He also showed her how to turn the camera on and off, where to look in the viewfinder, how to set up a scene and ultimately how to take a photo. Lyn absorbed these skills more and more each week.  In week six, Gary handed the camera over to Lyn. She was enthralled in capturing her peers as they prepared recipes or created works of art. She soon demonstrated an eye for composing the perfect action shot of students at work, as well as taking photographs of the finished products. Through his patience and individualized attention, Gary discovered Lyn’s specific interest and helped her to develop a new skill, which quickly blossomed in her. She took a keen interest in learning new techniques that lead her to working and cooperating more effectively with classmates. She now has acquired a love of photography and captures everyday experiences through her new artistic skill.

This may have been but one step in the overall scope of the program, and it was a giant success for Lyn. Her story is just a small glimpse of what can be done when artists, students, and educators work together to cultivate alternative ways of learning in a supportive arts-centered environment.


Northeast Michigan Center for Fine Arts, Inc. (aka Art in the Loft) is Northeast Michigan’s largest regional fine arts center with over 7,000 square feet of open loft space devoted to the exhibit of fine art by local, regional, and national artists, as well as arts workshops, educational activities and arts-centered community events. They also house a culinary arts kitchen that offers a full schedule of culinary arts classes and experiences. The Loft occupies the entire third floor of the historic Center Building in downtown Alpena and is a hub for the arts in the region. Their mission is: To enrich the quality of life in northeast Michigan through the development of a regional cultural arts center that increases learning opportunities and public participation in the arts.

Art in the Loft is located at 109 N. Second Ave. Suite 300 in Alpena, MI. Justin can be reached at director@artintheloft.org or by calling 989.356.4877. Visit all they do at www.artintheloft.org

Since 2013 Justin Christensen-Cooper has served as the Executive Director at Art in the Loft. In this role he oversees all gallery operations, educational programming, artists, and inventory, coordinating of gallery events and programming, along with increasing community involvement through memberships and sponsorships. He has led large scale art exhibits and mural projects throughout Northeast Michigan. He graduated with honors from Michigan State University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in kindergarten-12th grade Art Education. He was the art teacher at Prairie Middle School in Aurora, CO, Colorado’s largest middle school. In addition to teaching, Mr. Christensen-Cooper is a practicing artist with a focus on ceramics and printmaking.

Both Art in the Loft and MAEIA serve on the Michigan Arts and Culture Council’s arts education committee which is dedicated to advancing arts education in MACC’s programming and partnerships. 

Images provided by the author.

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