Life is colorful, and messy, at E11 Creative Workshop

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Maria Navaratne, co-owner of E11 Creative Workshop, helps children make stuffed animals.

E11 Creative Workshop

Founded: 2009

Employees: three, plus visiting artists and instructors

Art preschool for children ages 3 to 5, and after-school, summer and holiday art workshops for children ages 5 to 12.

Find them at: 4795 Granby Circle or www.e11cw.com

A chance meeting in a department store led to a business relationship between one of the city’s best-known builders and two British immigrants with a passion for art and education.

Chuck Murphy, owner of Murphy Constructors, met Maria Navaratne and her 8-year-old son Jules while shopping. They chatted and learned of each other’s occupations — Murphy a builder, Navaratne an art teacher.

She told him that she and her husband Alain were running E11 Creative Workshop, an art studio for preschool and elementary school-age children, in their Manitou Springs home. Things were getting cramped and they wanted to find a building they could turn into a real school. Murphy, an art-lover and hobbyist photographer, was impressed by the Navaratnes’ educational philosophy: Develop children’s creative thinking through art and let the child explore and choose an activity.

In August, Murphy bought a 5,100-square-foot building on a one-acre lot, just north of the intersection at Garden of the Gods Road and North 30th Street, and fixed it up to lease to the Navaratnes for their art school.

“I was taken by Alain and Maria’s commitment to the kids,” Murphy said. “I thought they would be great tenants. It was a great spot. It worked out perfect. “It’s meant to be,” he said.

As Maria sat this month at a worktable in the new E11 Creative Workshop helping three children make stuffed animals, she said she could not have predicted that she and Alain would be running an art school for children when they drove across the U.S. 10 years ago.

But for the first time in a long time she felt she was in her element.

“When a child is engaged in art, they are problem solving, thinking ‘how can I put this together?’ — the amount of thinking there is profound,” Maria said. “They are in their own element in different ways.”

Crossing the pond

In London, Maria taught elementary school and special education and developed curricula. Alain has a degree in fine arts — sculpting.

They came to the U.S. with their then 5-year-old daughter Agnes in 2002 to be with Alain’s father, who years earlier had packed up two suitcases and moved to Los Angeles. A few months after their arrival, Alain’s father passed away.

“We were stranded in America,” Maria said. “We had no support — we had nothing except our wits.”

They sold their house in England and obtained work visas. Alain bought a concrete mixer and launched his own freight shipping and trucking company. He called it E11, which was their postcode in England, and got his first contract with Lafarge Concrete in Colorado Springs.

“We took a gamble on Colorado to start our own business,” Alain said. “All we knew about the Western slopes and the Rocky Mountains was John Denver.”

Business was good until the recession. Since 2008, his trucking business slowly declined until he was forced to close in September.

In 2009, when Jules was preschool age, Maria decided to open her own art school. She’s designed the program based on the Italian Reggio Emilia approach, a philosophy that children should have some control over the direction of their learning.

She set up workstations, has shelves of art supplies, and lets children choose their activity. She had one student at first, and then enrollment grew to 12.

“It took over my house,” she said.

Then she met Murphy.

“Chuck went out on a limb for us,” she said.

In September, the E11 Creative Workshop moved to its new location at the base of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, and the children have enough elbow room to create giant airbrush murals and outside ponds and castles.

Serendipity, twice

Three weeks ago, another serendipitous event took the school to a new level. A Manitou Springs woman named Delgado (Maria does not know her first name) passed away. The woman’s neighbors, who helped pack up her house, found boxes of art and craft supplies. They delivered all the supplies to E11, filling seven shelves with paint brushes, cloth swatches, ribbons and Styrofoam, among other things.

“It’s really touching,” Maria said. “(Delgado) wanted children and now all these children are using all of her things.”

The supply infusion was perfect for the studio, which features a collage center, sculpting area, sewing table and airbrush painting. There are two reel-to-reel projectors and a potter’s wheel. One child recently put on goggles and picked up a saw to make a small table for her American Girl doll. And outside, children have built sand pits, moats and pirate ships.

“We couldn’t even dream of some of the things they come up with,” Maria said.

E11 has grown into an after-school program and the couple hired a third teacher, Julie Lavigne, a cultural anthropologist who is a great storyteller, Maria said. The Navaratnes offer shuttle service from Manitou Springs Elementary School and their after-school sessions are $18 a day. Preschoolers enroll for morning sessions for $235 a month.

With room to grow in their new location, Maria and Alain would like to add an Imagination Playground, a portable building block system made of recycled Styrofoam for making ramps, castles and sculptures. They also want to start a scrap room of wood and metal and other materials they collect from area businesses.

“It would be all the things that get thrown out, that we see as treasure,” Maria said.

Amid the shelves of stimuli, there’s a special kind of calmness at the school, said Joey Cook-Levy, who recently directed “A Christmas Story” at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and teaches theater workshops at E11.

“I love that place — it’s the most magical place,” said Cook-Levy, whose 4-year-old son is enrolled in the preschool program.

“There is a softness in her place,” she said. “The kids are enthused with every detail and they get to choose for themselves.”

All of the art projects are part of a process toward some mastery level skill Cook-Levy said. At the same time, it’s OK for children to make a disaster and get messy — in fact, she said, it’s encouraged.

E11 Creative Workshop is not strictly organized with a teacher telling children what they should do, Maria said. It’s a bit like life.

“When art is structured, you might never discover what you are really into,” she said. “I’m really in my element when I’m with these children and they are being creative.”