Innovator: Reta Rickmers

Blending art and commerce

This profile of an outstanding, innovative educator is part of the feature section “On the Leading Edge” in our annual Innovation Issue. Photos by Scott Buschman.

Get a job. Make some money. Learn what it’s like in the real world.

Teens constantly hear this advice from their parents, but seldom in relationship to the arts, where “starving” is often associated with the word “artist.” Art teacher Reta Rickmers sees things differently.

In an experiment at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico last year, Rickmers asked her students to form teams — or work solo if they liked — to design and pitch workable, salable and creative business ideas. They had to develop a business plan, budget and logo, all of which were presented to an “entre-board,” an advisory board of local entrepreneurs who offered advice and opinions. Students then had to create art products and sell them.

“As an artist who sells my artwork, I wanted my students to see being artistic as a way of making money,” says Rickmers, a member of the Chico Unified Teachers Association. “I believe in students’ can-do spirit and their ability to take matters into their own hands.”

Students were given start-up funds, which they had to pay back, but they were allowed to keep the profits. They designed and created their handiwork during class. Some made jewelry. Others made scented bath bombs, keychains, stickers, candles and soap. Some students hand-painted various items such as pots for plants, light switches and purses from thrift shops.

Her program, which she dubbed ARTrepreneurs, received a one-year grant from CTA’s Institute for Teaching. She admits that in the beginning, she had no idea how her “grand experiment” would turn out. It exceeded all her expectations.

Most students sold their artwork and made a profit at a crafts fair and in shops. The student who earned the most made vinyl stickers, which became a hit with high school and college students who plastered them on water bottles and laptops. The student found a company willing to print 100 of them for $100, sold them for $3 apiece, and ordered hundreds more after selling out in a day.

“It was great to see the kids being so innovative,” says Rickmers. “They learned that when you work hard and have a good work ethic, it pays off. They learned you need to have good ideas and be creative. Some of the students didn’t have good ideas, and when they didn’t make money, they learned some important lessons.”

Unlike in the real world, the few students who did not make money did not have to pay back the loan. But they had to prove they did not make a profit. While teaching real-world lessons is important, so is having a heart and empathy, says Rickmers.

Afterward, many of her students said the experience was life-changing.

“They realized the importance of having a business plan, collaborating with team members, and self-reliance,” she says. “They learned to take feedback from adults, because they had to pitch their ideas to local entrepreneurs before they started. If students received negative feedback, they had to modify their plan or change it. Everything they learned was connected to the real world. It was different than just showing up for class. They put their products out there for people to buy — and were thrilled when people did.”

Student Vanessa Kim, who painted purses, said, “I learned that money goes quick, and the public is very picky. I definitely felt that I got a chance to experience what the marketing world is like.”

This year Rickmers will have her students produce a fashion show of wearable art and create the couture from recycled materials such as used clothing, plastic, cardboard and tinfoil. The runway show, scheduled for spring, will be called “Phoenix,” because the materials students use will rise from the ashes.

“Trying innovative things keeps my job fresh and exciting,” says Rickmers, a teacher of 28 years. “For me, the best part is not knowing how it will all turn out.”

See more Innovators and Innovation stories here.

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