WINDHAM — Kim Piazza had a prophetic moment on the preschool graduation stage: The Windham native announced that she would be an artist when she grew up.
Now 30, the 2009 Salem High graduate reminisces about the path from that day to now, which finds her the owner of Heart Studio Art & Design Learning Center.
Piazza left a corporate design job at the end of 2019 to open her dream space, where she uses 20 years of artistic know-how to promote creativity among kids. The walls and windows feature some of her own work, alongside bright inspiration from others.
Projects at Heart Studio aim to build new skills in drawing, painting and design, using watercolors, colored pencils, photography and graphic software interchangeably, Piazza says.
The exploration of artistic realism is paired with approachable lessons on some of history’s most notable makers. One of the sweetest examples is Van Gogh-inspired cupcake decoration.
Piazza’s curriculum came together within three months of deciding to ditch stability in pursuit of her passion. Interest in what she had to offer began to build, and her signature on a lease secured rented space on Rockingham Road — at the busy crux of Windham and Salem.
But the global pandemic that loomed on the heels of her first day open — March 2, 2020 — rattled all of it.
“I got 10 days before I had to shut down,” Piazza says. “It was an amazing 10 days. I had full classes. And then I had to shut it all down for an undetermined amount of time. There was really no way to know what was going to happen.”
Piazza was inspired to forge ahead by the memory of her late aunt Linda Forti, the one who encouraged her to go after the dream in the first place. The woman she describes as a second mother died in 2018 after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 55.
“She’s the reason for a lot,” Piazza says simply. “She’s my hero.”
Summer was underway by the time state officials gave businesses the go-ahead to resume last June, but in limited capacities and with resources that had diminished.
“I had been selling art kits during that time, when I had to be closed,” Piazza says. “I taught seven kids virtually and hosted Facebook Lives, where I guided some projects.”
She is grateful for a strong first impression on the students and parents she met right away. They told others of the business, touting it as a way to get the kids — many of whom were thrust into remote learning — out of the house for a few hours and exert some mental energy.
That has been the case for Windham resident Janet Ross and her daughters, Rebecca, 7, a second-grader, and Allison, 5, a kindergartner. Since last September, they’ve spread glue, sprinkled glitter and seeped watercolors with “Miss Kim.”
“I saw the studio on social media, and the girls loved it so much I had to tell their friends’ parents about it,” Ross says.
Pandemic protocols are largely why the sisters and others take their art lessons alone. But it’s a concept that Piazza is rolling with.
“I had originally planned bigger classes, but COVID has been a blessing for me in that I learned the smaller classes are where everyone really thrives and I can see more progress,” she says.
Piazza hopes to expand on the few adult workshops she has been able to host thus far, like guided painting lessons and sign making. Children’s birthday parties and group lessons are also part of the plan.
“Everyone is so rushed these days, especially kids,” Piazza says. “Here, it’s about slowing down and making. I like to provide the tools and also give some freedom.”
Salem eighth-grader Andrew Cote, 14, has been enrolled with Piazza since the beginning. She points to him as one of her highly-skilled students.
The two spend their one-on-one lessons speaking more technically of the craft, using computer programs to bring paper and pencil drawings to a new medium. They even talk about career possibilities.
“There are, of course, plenty of people who make careers for themselves as artists in the traditional sense, but there are so many career opportunities when we start talking about art with a design mindset,” Piazza says.
Just as she declared decades ago, in her first and tiniest cap and gown, she tells her own students: “There are endless possibilities.”