Joani Castillo loves the Lord so much that she could just dance — or sing or act or mime. Yet she’s on a mission to help people cultivate and refine their skills of art and expression as callings from God to serve churches and the world.
Castillo is founder of Experience Arts School, a Christian education ministry in Mesa to train artists to be skilled, biblically grounded and spiritual. Her independent school, housed at Word of Grace Church, grew out of her work in the arts and 14 years on staff as a licensed minister overseeing the church’s theatrical arts and creative services program. For years, she trained church members to do Sunday worship drama and perform Christian dance, church dinner theater and other expressions.
From that, Castillo realized the arts are a strong force for spiritual discovery and faith outreach.
“It’s bigger than classroom or theater,” she says. “It’s about going outside these four walls and being the hands, the feet, the voice of God for a world that is yet to discover him.”
In a promotional DVD, she states that “God has called us as his artists. He has commissioned us as his body to further his kingdom.” Castillo says emphasis is on training those who want to enjoy the arts and others with interest in enhancing skills that may lead to careers.
People from 25 churches take part in four programs of Experience Arts School: Dance, fine arts, media arts and theater. Courses include ballet, tap, hip-hop and modern dance, ceramics, drawing, cartooning, computer graphics, sound, vocal and instrumental music, acting, directing, lighting and set/costume design.
The skills are divided into three major areas: “Recreational,” for enhancing the enjoyment of arts; “overture,” for those “seriously investigating their artistic gifts”; and “ministering arts,” for advanced and talented people who may pursue ministerial work or careers in the arts.
“I want to spread the idea to satellite campuses,” she says. “We want more churches, as well as the community to support the vision.” Castillo hopes the school can be housed on its own campus. More than 200 students are enrolled in classes held either on weekday evenings or on Saturdays.
Cheri Kellar, 16, who is home-schooled, takes several classes. Much of the music used for instruction is Christian-based, and classes start with prayer. “It’s very blessed,” she says of the program.
For Cassandra Srutowski, 12, of Mesa, the training she gets at the school augments her work in her family’s Western singing band, a widely traveled group, Pioneer Pepper and the Sunset Pioneers. She takes classes in musical theater, jazz and piano. “I love everything, and it is all so fun,” she says. “It’s all something I get to use.”
“You can express yourself spiritually here,” says piano instructor Tabitha Kaminski. “Not only musically or in dance, but in whatever your creativity is in or what your talent happens to be in. So this is kind of like the freedom of being able to share your faith.”
Olivia Manos, 14, says she has taken dance classes elsewhere, but the Christianbased instruction at Experience Arts brought another dimension to her training. “I have been dancing for a while at other studios but found that God was kind of calling me here,” she says. “It has just worked out so much better. I have been closer to God through this company. I have made a lot of good friends. The teaching is awesome.”
Athena Russo of Chandler brings her daughter Ariel, 7, for ballet and tap classes. She cited Experience Arts’ emphasis on structure and sound instruction.
“There are a lot of fundamentals taught,” she said. “You take those on your daily walk. You can apply those elements to some things I never thought you could do.”
The school showcased its work last summer with five performances of “Mosaic,” featuring dance, original music, costumes, sets and other artistic dimensions of the school. The school is preparing a fundraiser, A Night to Remember: A Formal Black Tie Gala, on April 1. It will feature a big band, singing and ballroom dancing.
Ruth Ristow, 31, is part of a vocal ensemble preparing to perform music from the 1940s and ’50s. “Singing has always been a passion of mine, and this class teaches me how to use that as a form of music to keep God the focus and doing it for what we call ‘the audience of one,’ just doing it for God,” she says.
“It really kind of unites us all into focusing on our energies on that form of worship and doing it for God.”
If you go
What: A Night to Remember: A Formal Black Tie Gala, performances and open ballroom dancing
When: 6 p.m. to midnight April 1
Where: San Marcos Resort, 1 San Marcos Place, Chandler
Reservations: (480) 464-3967 or www.experienceartsschool.com by March 27