Amidst the everyday bustle of the food court and bookstore at the University of Missouri Student Center, a visitor can find Roots, an entrepreneurial nonprofit that connects students of MU and the Columbia community.
Roots became an idea in the fall of 2015 when Hope Watson and business partner Ashleigh Atasoy identified a need in the community.
“In the wake of the recession in 2008 there were significant cuts to funding in art education programs, particularly in elementary schools in the Columbia area,” said Hope Watson, Roots’ nonprofit director. “Although the economy has been recovering, the funding for those programs has not been reallocated in ways that have really revived what was once there in terms of art education.”
A program through MU Student Unions allows students to pitch an entrepreneurship idea to take residence for one year in the MU Student Center. Each year students submit business plans and present them. The two winning ideas are allotted $2,000 to purchase items for start-up, as well as other things like a lock box for money.
Roots was one of the winning ideas, and Watson and Atasoy saw their idea come to life in the fall of 2016.
The nonprofit selects artwork that MU students make themselves. Anyone, art majors or not, can submit their artwork designs online. From there, the artwork goes through a selection process to decide what will be sold in the store. Community members and students can then purchase the artwork either in the store or online. Of the proceeds, 50 percent go back to the artist, 30 percent to art clinics held by Roots, and 20 percent to the store.
“When a purchase is made at Roots, a decent amount of money goes back to the artist, which is a huge deal for starting artists,” said Rachel Choma, Roots’ art director. Choma says a substantial amount of the proceeds goes to the nonprofit side that will help low-income children in the community.
Art found in the store ranges from posters, stickers, t-shirts, to even mugs and key chains.
“We wanted our store to be open to any art major, so not just someone who paints or draws or is good at graphic design,” Choma explained. We wanted people to be able to expose their artwork for whatever form it comes in. And on top of that, college kids love mugs.”
When selecting the artwork, the selection team not only thinks about the medium it was originally submitted in, but also what else it could be sold as. For instance, could the design be both on a t-shirt or poster?
“A lot of the art work is organically the artist’s and so they kind of bring it as is, but then there’s a decent amount of the artwork that I wouldn’t say gets altered, but is made in thinking of college students as buyers, as consumers,” Choma said.
Prices for the artwork are set by the artists.
Before Roots, the MU Arts Department had no professional development program. Art students learned the skills of the trade in their classes, but were unable to learn the business side of things.
Choma explained that it is important for artists to have their artwork shown, whether that be in a gallery or show. The challenge for beginner artists is many times these galleries or shows are juried, meaning their artwork may not be guaranteed a place in the show or gallery.
Roots aims to provide a space for artists to learn the ins and outs of submitting artwork and how to frame it or price it, without the competitive edge that juried art shows or galleries may have.
On the other side of the non-profit, Roots hosts art clinics at a variety of locations for low-income elementary students in first through fifth grade. These clinics occur every other week on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Choma, an aspiring art teacher, writes and teaches the curriculum for the art clinics. However, the curriculum she writes isn’t something you would find in your everyday art class. She focuses on repurposing items, for instance taking a mason jar or Kleenex box and finding ways to make art out of it.
“I wanted to show them another side of art that I found really helpful when I was growing up,” Choma said.
While art classes in schools focus primarily on the color wheel, shapes, and perspectives, which Choma describes as the foundation of art, she focuses on the creative side of art. She wants students to have an outlet through which they can express themselves. She said this is important especially for her students who come from low-income homes and have a lot going on in their lives.
“I know for myself, and a lot of other artists, having art as an outlet is a way to center yourself, a way to balance and a way to healthily control the environment around you,” Choma said.
The name of the store, Roots, also has a significant meaning behind it.
A press release by Roots explains it best, “The roots of a tree delve deeper below the surface, to access nutrients and draw them out. These nutrients are then used to foster the growth of the tree and cause it to flourish into something incredible. As a business, we hope to probe the untapped potential of both community groups we serve (children from low-income families and Mizzou artists) and bring out the magnificent beauty in each. As a business, we firmly believe that the transformative power of art can counteract the negative effects of poverty in the Columbia community.”
Through Mizzou, Roots has the ability to impact the Columbia community through art clinics. They even call their art clinic attendees, Sprouts.
“We like to think that when we go out to these locations we’re kind of planting a seed with these kids,” Choma said. “That the things that they learn in our classes are things that they can take with them for the rest of our lives.”
All of their team members truly believe in their purpose, from the Art Director to those specialized in other fields.
“I think the biggest thing was just how to connect Mizzou and the Columbia community to be able to help kids who wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to do art and learn from art in the way that they should be able to,” said Kelsey Buehler, Roots’ marketing specialist.
You can follow Roots on social media to see their impact, or stop by the store located in the MU Student Center. If you are interested in learning more or giving your time, talent, or treasure click here.