"Step-up to Help Out" is this year's annual fundraiser at Ashland Art Works, opening Oct. 1 for First Friday and running until the stools are gone. The stools were painted by students, professional artists and community members to be sold for a minimum price of $50.

Ashland Art Works is taking to new heights with one-of-a-kind, hand-painted step stools.

"Step-up to Help Out" is this year's annual fundraiser at the gallery, opening Oct. 1 for First Friday and running until the stools are gone. The stools were painted by local students, professional artists and community members to be sold for a minimum price of $50. The funds will go to the buyer's choice of four charities, ACCESS Inc. Elder Food Bank, Community Works Crisis Center, Children's Dental Clinic or Sanctuary One Animal Shelter.

"It's community involvement from all ages — kindergarten to retirees in their 70s," said Cheryl Kempner, a founding member of Ashland Art Works, which is a non-profit artist cooperative gallery at 291 Oak St.

"The most difficult part was picking the charities," said John Weston, the driving force behind this year's fundraiser. "We wanted a spectrum, give people a choice, and choose some that are not as high profile."

Weston is a woodworker and has lived in the Rogue Valley for more than 30 years. He taught carpentry, stained glass, jewelry and wood sculpture at Ashland High School for 26 years. Weston "retired" this year, but still teaches part-time.

"I have a great job, it's the best," Weston said.

The idea for the fundraiser came when the group of gallery members brainstormed for the annual event. Weston had done a similar project in his classroom with students, so he donated the supplies and made the nearly 20 step stools. Then they were given to the artists to paint any way they wanted.

"I'm overwhelmed with the response of artists," Weston said.

The artists include six Ashland High School students, a Bellview Elementary kindergarten class, several community members, professional artists and members and friends of the gallery.

"A whole variety of people are uniquely painting them," Kempner said.

The stools are simple, made out of birch plywood. Weston estimates about 10 hours of work went into the production of the stools, but the art took more time.

"When you look at some of these, the artist put in more than 10 hours," he said.

The paintings on the stools vary from colorful frogs and fish to cats and lady bugs. Some of the stools are painted as landscapes and abstracts.

Weston joined the cooperative a year ago and has learned a lot about how to market, price and present his woodworking pieces.

"I'm a woodworker, not an artist. What I try to do is to make a piece that allows the wood to be the prominent feature," he said. Weston also contributed a finished stool made out of walnut with no paint.

Weston will be one of four featured artists at the gallery for October, along with Lorene Senesac's ceramic and sculpture, Marcia O'Rourke's ceramics and Elin Babcock's sculptures and paintings.

In the cooperative's seven years it has hosted a variety of fundraisers. One year people were invited to make bowls out of clay. The artists at the co-op glazed and fired them, then had a soup night and sold the bowls with the soup.

This fundraiser also strives to include a large part of the Ashland community in the art process.

"It's a way for students and teachers to acknowledge the support they get from the community," Weston said.

Kempner doesn't think it will take long for the stools to sell. Three of the stools have already gone out the door.

For more information, visit www.ashlandartworks.com.

Reach reporter Johanna Thompson at 541-482-3456, ext. 225.