NEWFANE — Jessica Tomaino is the head of WAHI Art Studio, a 501(c)(3) non-profit intent on art education for mental and emotional health. Stationed on Main Street, the studio is filled with easels, a chalkboard and paint stains on the carpet.

Tomaino is quick to explain the stains.

“We throw paint! It’s a major stress reliever.”

Tomaino’s path toward opening WAHI (an acronym for Wild At Heart Illustration) is filled with art, as well as compassion for area youth. She showed a picture of herself at age 8 and explained that, today, she wants to be the person that child needed.

The road to being that person required a lot of work, some schooling – Tomaino has an associates degree in fine arts from Niagara County Community College and credit hours from Buffalo State College and Niagara University – and being forced to change in the unprecedented time of COVID-19.

Before opening WAHI, the Ransomville native said, she was content to land teaching gigs at other venues and paint murals.

“The pandemic kind of forced me to actually do what I should’ve been doing my entire life,” Tomaino said. “I love teaching kids. Art is important. Education is important for mental and emotional well being.”

WAHI was launched at the end of August, in mid pandemic. Tomaino said her business didn't qualify for any grants, “so we’ve just been scraping by.”

To pay the rent, Tomaino has been giving in-person art workshops (socially distanced with masks) and subletting space for birthday parties with art activities, hence the throwing paint and stains.

All the money goes right back into the business, she said, and WAHI also offers memberships and class passes. Students don't need prior experience with drawing; Tomaino said she’ll meet everyone where they’re at and she doesn't mind disclosing some secret tips.

“Art is abundant, it is not a competition. Community is never a competition,” she said. “Give back what you get.”

Currently, Tomaino is trying to get an after-school art club going. She's looking for funding to launch it, so that there is "no expense to the students," she said.

Tomaino and the rest of WAHI, which includes instructors and board members, also are looking forward to summer. That's when Newfane becomes the “Allentown of the north,” Tomaino said.

“We have a ridiculous amount of talented people in this area. ... We’re kind of in a little bit of a renaissance.”

When WAHI opened at 2729 Main St., the unit that houses it had been empty for almost two years, and other empty buildings were conspicuous in the area.

Today, between WAHI, Imagine That arts supply shop next door, Artisan Alley, Wilson's Pizza Shop and an as-of-yet-unnamed coffee shop opening down the street in March, a community is brewing.

“This whole lot, all summer long, is going to be a walking gallery (of chalk art)," Tomaino said. "We’re going to have kids out here for two festivals, here and in Olcott.”

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