La Verne’s Mud Shack makes everyone an artist
by Taylor Perez-Graham
photography by Jessica Harsen
As a school teacher, wife, mother, University of California, Riverside alumna and Mud Shack owner, Denyse Hart is always looking to bring out the creative side in others. Since buying the Mud Shack in 2001, Denyse has brought joy and inspiration to guests of all ages and artistic capabilities. Those walking into the Mud Shack relate that they feel an instant warm, welcoming feeling. Handmade white clay ceramics cover all four walls, top to bottom, beckoning fledgling artists to paint them. In between these clean, white ceramic pieces are colorful finished masterpieces, most created by staff, of all different shapes and sizes.
Each ready to paint piece is individually unique and created by Denyse’s husband Ron, shop co-owner and a 1982 University of La Verne alumnus. “Not that the Harts would ever let you see their backyard, but it is full of white clay, a throwing wheel and different molds. The majority of the pieces are created in their backyard.” says friend and volunteer Sue Henderson. “It’s true,” laughs Ron. “Our backyard and driveway are overflowing with molds and pieces.”
For the Harts, education is the family business. Both are school teachers by day and business owners by night. Denyse grew up in Riverside. Her mother and father were both school teachers and became principals. She graduated from UC Riverside with a degree in liberal studies and is presently a fourth grade teacher at Mission Bell Elementary School in Jurupa. Ron earned his teaching credential from the University of La Verne and is a science teacher and tennis coach at Gladstone High School in Azusa. Ron and Denyse met in 1983 at a sixth grade science camp. Denyse was a science teacher visiting the camp, and Ron was a naturalist who was working at the camp. They have been married for 30 years and have two college-aged children, Keith and Katie.
Mud Shack opened in 1997 under previous owner Sherri Lane. As a former customer of the Mud Shack, Denyse, in 2001, learned that the Mud Shack was closing and decided to buy the studio. “The Mud Shack was something I believed in and believed it should continue,” she says.
Giving back to the community
The Mud Shack makes it simple for families, adults and children to make ceramic art. Everything a guest needs is readily accessible, including step-by-step instructions and skilled assistance and advice from employees and volunteers to paint a masterpiece. All one needs to do is come in and have fun. Offered are decorative pieces: dogs, cats, dolphins and fairies. For the practical minded, functionable, usable houseware abounds: dinnerware, vases, cookie jars, platters and bowls. Family friendly events are staged weekly. Sundays are family paint days. The studio offers a $15 paint fee for a family of five. They also host a monthly ladies’ night, which is a special night featuring discounts, wine and snacks.
Denyse and Ron strongly believe in creating a place for children to nurture their creative side. They offer many “Just for Kids” monthly workshops. “Mud Puddles” is one theme-based activity. Staff read books and instruct children how to paint a ceramic storybook character while merging education and fun. “Play in the Mud” allows children to create a one of a kind masterpiece. Children are taught how to roll and form clay. This class is a two-part process. After their masterpiece is fired in the kiln, it is then ready to paint.
Rebecca Keeler held her ninth birthday party at Mud Shack, bringing her whole class of girls in to share the experience. Rebecca, who celebrates her birthday Oct. 2, made it a seasonal/Halloween experience. Each child painted a Halloween square plaque or another object of their choice. Rebecca received a birthday keepsake gift from the Mud Shack to remember her special day. “I had fun painting, being with my friends and eating birthday cake,” says Rebecca.
Students discover the love of art
The Mud Shack is not only an art studio; it offers a unique one-on-one personal experience. Staff members have experienced art backgrounds, either majoring in art in college or creating art on a daily basis. The Mud Shack staff often holds art classes for the local schools in its studio and also gives teachers the option for its staff to come to their classrooms and teach an art class on site. “A Roynon teacher and her class walked to the studio and got stuck at the Mud Shack one year because it was raining; the Mud Shack has since made it an option for the staff to come to the school,” says Tamara Bayz, third grade Roynon Elementary school teacher. “Its nice knowing we have that option.” Tamara laments that budget cuts through the years have caused art to be sacrificed in many districts, leaving schools to be strictly based on core educational values. The Mud Shack opportunity helps bring art back into the lives of children. Tamara and her class have been returning customers for more than 10 years. Her Roynon students walk to the Mud Shack and paint a seasonal item. The school asks for a $10 donation fee from each class parent. In turn, the Mud Shack staff provides the item, paint, brushes, stencils and help. “In elementary school, we are always pushing the academics so much we don’t have much time for art so this is a nice way to get the kids out and expose them to art,” says Tamara. “Jeanie Lisden and Sue Henderson are great about tying in different academic lessons into art.” The two have donated their time at the Mud Shack since the Harts bought the studio. They teach most of the Mud Shack paint classes and often create the beautiful samples on display. “We are here as friends for Denyse; this is why we do it. She is a wonderful friend,” says staff member Henderson. ”We love this place; this is our passion.” Although the students come every year, the Mud Shack staff changes the project every year and the way they teach it. Students have made snow globes, ornaments, mugs and plates, among other art. The teachers and staff communicate on what they are learning in class and incorporate it into the art class theme.
Artistic passion sparks imagination
The Mud Shack has brought joy to many customers. “Mud Shack is a place I went to for my best friend’s birthday when I was a child, but now that I’m an adult and “nannying,” it’s a place where I take children so they can make the same memories that I have,” says continuing customer Lindsay Gonzalez. “Seeing a plain white ceramic piece that I made, and then seeing it turned into a beautiful masterpiece after it is painted is truly rewarding,” says Ron. “We believe that participation in art helps develop self-confidence and imagination.”
“The only boundary is your imagination,” is one of Denyse’s famous quotes, created like her art when she purchased the Mud Shack 12 years ago. It is a theme that drives the Mud Shack experience. “We are truly grateful to our customers,” says Denyse. “We enjoy opening up this artistic world to them.”