Treehouse school in Homer exposes youngsters to world of art, music

Posted: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Hang around children for any length of time and you'll quickly see how important art and music are in their lives. Hang around Nancy and Matt Yaki and you'll discover how they bring their own love of the arts into the lives of children.

The two Homer residents opened a school for budding artists and musicians this summer, and it's going strong, with 15 kids in the program and a waiting list. Some of these 3- to 5-year-olds attend four days a week, while others just come one or two days. In the summer, the program expands to include youngsters up to age 7.

Called The Treehouse, the school was originally built by the Yakis to serve as a studio for her paintings and his music. With the design help of Bo, their 7-year-old daughter, they rebuilt the studio into a school-daycare for children where music and art are at the core. Even the initial design included a kid's touch: Bo insisted upon a loft where kids could go to play on their own, and helped lay out the rooms in a child-friendly way.

The art and music school was Nancy's dream, and as Matt admits, "At first I resisted the idea. 'What, are you crazy?' I said. It was hard for me. But now it's really enjoyable in a lot of ways that I hadn't expected."

Nancy taught at a Montessori school in Homer during the 1980s and The Treehouse borrows some ideas from Montessori concepts. Kids learn in small groups, with a free-form mix of indoor activities and outside play. There's always an emphasis on art and music, from playful watercolors to tap dancing the latter is taught by Marjorie Scholl, another talented Homer painter who works most afternoons at The Treehouse.

"We never interfere in their process of creating work because that doesn't build a lot of self-esteem," Nancy said. "We want them to be makers and doers by doing it themselves. I stay away from the good-job, bad-job comments. I stay away from evaluating them."


Barae Hirsch, Jesser Hiller and Leila Moss make sauce for baked halibut at the school earlier this month.

Photo by Don Pitcher

"It's humbling how fast a little kid can challenge you," Matt added. "You've got to drop expectations and go with whatever happens. My preconceptions of teaching were formed by my experience with older kids goal or achievement oriented. But with little kids I have to step back and think, this is what is for today."

A recent visit to the school found the children singing songs for a holiday CD as a present to their parents. Then Matt went into a guitar-and-singing version of the childhood classic, "The Old Gray Cat," with nine preschoolers in full-throttle fun. First they were sleeping cats, then creeping mice, then waking cats and finally scurrying mice. Not surprisingly, it took a lot of coaxing to slow them down afterward.

The school follows a basic structure, with music early in the morning, a 10 a.m. snack, then art, outside games or a walk, a home-cooked lunch, a nap and more art projects in the afternoon. Mix in time for chores including collecting eggs from the hens a little dancing or yoga, and maybe a puppet show, and you've got a full day.

All this play is for a purpose. According to Nancy: "Basically they're learning social development. Social development is the foundation and everything else gets stacked on top of that.

"Kids need a strong art foundation," she said. "Music and arts are prerequisites to reading, writing, math, language and learning social skills."

Matt and Nancy Yaki took strikingly different paths to Homer.

Matt was born in Hong Kong, where his Japanese-Hawaiian father was working as a U.S. diplomat despite the fact that his own government had imprisoned him in an internment camp during World War II.

Matt's Chinese mother was working as an anchorwoman at an English-language television station. During Matt's childhood, they moved around the globe, bouncing from Taipei to Jakarta, Ottawa, then Washington, D.C., and finally back to Hong Kong.

Matt always had an interest in the guitar, and his self-created interdisciplinary degree from the University of California at Davis blended music, literature, sociology, creative writing and art. After paying his dues with several San Francisco progressive-rock bands, he grew tired of the thefts and grime of city life. In 1992, a friend from Homer tempted Matt north with a cannery job and tent space at Seaside Farm.

His hands started hurting after a week at the Icicle Seafoods plant, so one day he walked into Caf Cups and landed a gig playing classical guitar. That's where he met a waitress named Nancy Tetreault (now Yaki).

Matt planned to continue his education and was accepted into the graduate program at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but Nancy's pregnancy changed that plan. Their daughter Bo was born in 1996, pushing their roots more deeply into Homer earth.

Born of Mohawk-French Cana-dian parents, Nancy was the sixth of nine children in a close-to-the-earth family. Neither of her parents spoke English, and the kids taught their mom to read when Nancy was in the eighth grade; her dad has never learned to read or write. In some ways this illiteracy became a positive for the family, forcing the children to learn practical skills before gaining a formal education.

Nancy's dad worked as a carpenter, and the children learned early how to build things. Living next to the dump helped.

"You could go there to get scrap metal and junk and make stuff out of it," she said. "I didn't go to kindergarten. We went to the landfill."

By age 4, Nancy already was in first grade, not as a student, but as a helper for her partially deaf brother. She continued as his aide all the way through high school.

Despite this challenging background, Nancy's skills quickly came to the forefront. By age 16 she already was in an artists program at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, completing an MFA from Paier College of Art a few years later. She moved north to Alaska in 1979, and for the next 15 years her life included a mix of commercial fishing, carpentry (including building their house and studio), waiting tables and travel to remote parts of the globe.

In the last decade Nancy has gained a national reputation for her bright paintings, a number of which adorn the walls of The Treehouse. Today, she also is working on a distance-learning degree in early childhood education from the University of Alaska Southeast, developing a teaching background for her art.

The experience of running The Treehouse has pushed both Nancy and Matt Yaki in new creative directions. Matt continues to teach guitar lessons at Etude Studio, but also loves coming up with "goofy" lyrics for kid's songs.

In addition, one wall of his music room at Etude is now covered with his own watercolors. The inspiration began one morning when he decided to try his hand at painting at the same time as the children.

"Nancy thinks it's funny," he said. "She looks at my work and makes suggestions, but I'd rather do it my own way."

For Nancy, The Treehouse has provided a window into children's lives, and an inspiration for her own art.

"When you get too heady it sucks the magic right out of it, and kids live in a magical world. They don't live in cause-and-effect yet. They live in their hearts," she said. "This kind of slowed us down. It's nice to go at their pace and be present in the moment. If it takes five weeks to tie your shoes, we've got the time. It's important to have the space to grow."

The changes also show up in her personal work.

"I've been doing abstracts more now, loosening up," Nancy said. "I need to drop down into the place of children. It's not all serious. This business has allowed me to be more playful in my art by providing the financial freedom of not having to produce tourist art. This allows me to reconnect with the joy and fun of why I became an artist, and why I always painted."

Don Pitcher writes for the Homer News.

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