An Artists' Playhouse Opens Doors For Kids In Need

Jun 3, 2014

Wheel your cart into the Winn-Dixie on Carrollton Avenue, and you might be distracted from your grocery list by a house. Just inside the supermarket sits a bright cottage, typically New Orleans in style.

“It’s got the front porch, it’s got the hip roof and the chimney up top. And everything is crooked,” says Matthew Holdren. The designer and woodworker built this pint-sized home, a children’s playhouse about 9-by-5 feet in size. Its just-might-topple-over feel was inspired by collaborator Terrance Osborne.

“I kind of played on the idea of Terrance’s crooked houses he does," says Holdren. "It was fun to mock up in the yard at the shop, to go against plumb lines and level lines, to just bend things and push walls in different directions until it came alive.”

Holdren builds with reclaimed materials, and leaves his work with a natural finish. Terrance Osborne is known for frenetic, Technicolor New Orleans scenes. Osborne painted the raw wood in his signature palette, an elaborate flow of purples, reds, yellows, greens and blues.

“It’s cute, colorful, the whole thing looks like one of my paintings in 3-D,” says Osborne.

The house, he says, brought his painting work closer to sculpture.

“To do a piece of this magnitude that you can actually walk around in is a whole new experience for me,” Osborne says. “I’m already thinking about ways to… dive in a little more.”

The point of the whimsical piece goes beyond creative collaboration and innovation. It’s being raffled to raise funds and awareness for CASA Jefferson, the Jefferson Parish Court-Appointed Special Advocates program.

Osborne has been involved with CASA for some time, drawn to the cause through his wife Stephanie. Herself an adopted child, Stephanie has told her story through CASA. Giving to the organization through his art, says Osborne, made sense.

Holdren says neighborhood children lit up at the sight of the playhouse as he finished the structure, and children at the Winn-Dixie store marvel that they can step onto the porch and open the working door.

Osborne and Holdren also worked with interior designer Maria Barcelona and landscaper Matthew Ponseti. The playhouse has artwork on the walls, curtains on the windows, and it’s surrounded by plants — touches that normally only go into a “real” home.

It’s fitting, then, that the playhouse raffle benefits children in need of good homes. CASA’s team of more than 160 volunteers get involved to improve the lives of abused or neglected children, by representing them in court and being sure their needs are met while in foster care.  

“CASA advocates are able to talk to everyone in a child’s life,” says Executive Director Emily Remington. “Doctors, teachers, social workers, T-ball coach, anyone in a child’s life. Advocates represent whatever is in the best interest of the child.”

CASA volunteer advocates dedicate eight to 15 hours a month. They determine what’s best for a child who’s not in the full-time care of a parent or legal guardian. “Whether that’s more time with dad or more tutoring or more dental visits, eyeglasses, whatever it might be,” says Remington. 

Federal and state grants cover 75 percent of CASA’s budget, to train volunteers and retain them. The other quarter comes from fundraising. CASA Jefferson recently became a 501(c)3 non-profit, a designation that allows it to raise more private money. This helps ensure stability of services, says Remington. “Line items in federal budgets can go away when the winds change in Washington, and so we wanted to bring in different sources of funding, and the playhouse is one way to do that.”

The idea to raffle a playhouse came from other CASA groups around the country, including Baton Rouge. Former CASA Jefferson board member Dennis Lomonaco led the idea to bring the project here. CASA Jefferson helped nearly 400 children last year; right now more than 30 children are on its waiting list, says Remington. She hopes the playhouse raises money, but also increases curiosity about CASA to attract more volunteers. Her favorite details of the house?

“I love the inside. It has a chandelier, and stars on the ceiling. Certainly nothing I ever played with as a child was as elaborate as this,” she says.

For designer and builder Matthew Holdren, the form of a playhouse has roots.

“I built a lot of treehouses, that’s kind of where I started in construction. My father was a carpenter in Vermont and he’d bring home scrap from work, and so it was reclaimed materials from the beginning.”

Giving that experience to a child, with the added benefit of helping other children, lends the playhouse project meaning, he says. Terrance Osborne thinks of the children who receive help through CASA, and the value of seeing through the sensitivity of a child’s eyes. He says even people without children have bought raffle tickets for the playhouse.

“Ultimately the gift of art makes you feel happy,” he says. “To experience anything that a human took his time to focus his attention on, for hours or weeks, and for that to be a gift to someone, that’s a special thing.”

The playhouse will be raffled at the CASA Jefferson offices June 20. Both artists hope to build another playhouse. Maybe next time with a porch swing.

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