Chula League aims to sustain, fuel arts for elementary children in East Austin

Liliana Hall

Art programs are a vital part of adolescence, but the time allocated for fine art programs in public schools is often insufficient. Then came Chula League.

Chula League is a nonprofit organization formed in 2005 by a small board of directors to ensure the arts play a vital role in the education and well-being of East Austin neighborhoods. The nonprofit sustains two vital programs that carry out their mission — the Cherrywood Art Fair and Little Artist BIG ARTIST.

The flagship program for Chula League is the Cherrywood Art Fair, and the 17th year of festivities will begin on Dec. 8 and 9.

Sherri Whitmarsh, the managing director of the Cherrywood Art Fair, said it is a juried art fair with 93 local artists vending their handcrafted items.

“The Cherrywood Art Fair goes hand-in-hand with our mantra of sustaining the arts in East Austin because all of the proceeds go directly back to our Little Artist BIG ARTIST program,” Whitmarsh said. “As a Cherrywood resident and the managing director, I am constantly blown away by the professionalism and variety of the artists each year.”

John Mathew Bernal, the vice chair for the board of directors, began working with Chula League three years ago. At the time he was struggling between being a recent college graduate abole to give back to his community versus seeking employment.

Bernal said Chula League established itself in the East Austin neighborhood back in 2007 when the organization launched Little Artist BIG ARTIST, an after school mentorship program for fifth and sixth graders enrolled at elementary schools in East Austin.

“Through the Little Artist BIG ARTIST program, we really strive to help students turn an idea into art and art into a business,” Bernal said. “After that, we support them in any way that we can to get them more involved with our ecosystem of arts within the community.”

Angel Ortega is a working artist in Austin and began working with the Little Artist BIG ARTIST program three years ago after learning about it through her roller derby league.

“My goal with the program is to show my littles they can do this because it is work, but it is a lot of fun,” Ortega said. “Ultimately it is nice to step back and just see them use art in their day-to-day while having a good time.”

Ortega is a mixed media artist with a focus on illustration and graphic design. She said because of her experiences with art as a child and the amazing mentors she had in school, she wished to portray the same role by getting involved with Chula League.

“I owe a lot to the amazing mentors I had growing up so I really hope I can pass on that same knowledge to my littles,” Ortega said.

Bernal said the program is remarkable because knowing they are opening an artistic door for young kids means a great deal to him.

“I know these kids and I was one of those kids growing up in Austin around a lot of hardship,” Bernal said. “Personally knowing that we are able to give them an outlet and to know we can break that cycle a little bit, that is heartwarming for me.”