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Family keeps legacy alive with lessons in art and life in Straus house

Updated July 16, 2017 - 9:23 pm

The drawings, paintings and sculptures around her home — and the expansive studio and gallery spaces in which they rest — are examples of Joyce Straus’ art.

But take a closer look: The inspirational sayings, the notes of encouragement and the photos and names of long-ago students posted on bulletin boards and inscribed in the oddest places. They’re examples of her art, too.

For more than 35 years, Joyce Straus created and taught art to students in an ever-expanding warren of studios at her home near Rancho and Alta drives. Las Vegas attorney David Straus, Joyce’s son, estimates that more than 5,000 people — kids and teenagers, mostly, but adults, too — took classes with Joyce between 1975 and her death in 2013.

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Joyce’s life was her art, and in sharing her art with others, she taught them about life. Today, her family keeps Joyce’s legacy alive by offering art lessons — and Joyce’s life lessons — to a new generation of students.

An unlikely avocation

Art seemed to be an unlikely career for Joyce. David recalls that, when Joyce was growing up in Philadelphia, her second-grade teacher one day asked every student to draw a cow.

“The typical student drew typical cows with black spots and big cowbells,” he says. “But not my mother.”

Instead, Joyce drew a cow marked with “filet” and “sirloin” markings, like a butcher’s diagram, and a cow that had stripes and flowers and stars, says Heidi Straus, David’s wife. “The teacher said to her parents, ‘This child has no artistic talent whatever.”

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A Joyce Straus' artwork at The "House of Straus" in Las Vegas.

Joyce and her husband, Dr. Neil Straus, moved to Las Vegas in 1961 when he was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base. After leaving the Air Force, Neil Straus entered private medical practice here. Joyce volunteered at schools and organizations around town but didn’t reconnect with art until she was nearly 40.

Joyce was going through a rough patch in her life, Heidi says, and while walking down a street in Westwood, California, happened to pass by a weaving class. Joyce thought she could do that. Neil Straus bought Joyce her first loom when they returned home.

Heidi suspects that Joyce continued to love art, second-grade misadventure notwithstanding, but “didn’t know she had permission” to create it. So, Heidi says, “I think she was waiting for permission.”

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Artist Joyce Straus' collections at The "House of Straus" in Las Vegas. Chitose Suzuki Las Vegas Review-Journal

An artist revealed

Weaving was only the beginning. Joyce eventually would work with and teach classes in drawing, ceramics, batik, fabric design, clay, wood, metal, stone, silver and glass.

Joyce’s unexpected career as an art teacher began when a neighbor asked her to give art lessons to her daughters. Other families’ kids joined in, and the classes became the kernel of what Joyce would call the School of Creative Thinking, using art as a means to promote creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

As Joyce’s classes and her own artistic interests grew, the Strauses remodeled their home to add studio and gallery space. David estimates the home was remodeled at least 12 times, and says a family joke was that the kids should never go to college because they’d find their bedrooms converted into studios when they came home on break.

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David Straus shows his mother Joyce Straus' artworks. Chitose Suzuki Las Vegas Review-Journal

Heidi Straus is the daughter of Jay Sarno, the visionary behind Caesars Palace and Circus Circus, and her family lived down the street from the Straus family. Growing up, she was accustomed to a more high-profile lifestyle than the Strauses, who might have been described, in a term of the time, as bohemian.

On their second date, David brought Heidi home to meet his family and to tour their home. “I had never seen people like that,” says Heidi, who was excited “to meet someone so real and so creative, who (was) putting junk on their walls.”

Heidi laughs. “I married him to get to her. That’s how cool she was.”

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Heidi Straus shows her mother-in-law Joyce Straus' artworks at The "House of Straus" in Las Vegas. Chitose Suzuki Las Vegas Review-Journal

The art of life

Lindy Schumacher had her first class with Joyce around third grade. “What happened in that room in her home was not art, it was growing up,” Schumacher says. “It was sharing things you couldn’t, maybe, share at home with your own parents. It was a safe place. It was filled with love. You knew that if you ever needed someone, Joyce was there.

“You could talk about anything. There were conversations about strong character and how to stand up for yourself or your friends — these are things that are now common conversation — and what it feels like when you make tough choices and how you make the right choices.”

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West Prep student Kelsey Reyes-Perez, 16, works on her painted skateboard at an art summer camp at the late Joyce Straus' home. Elizabeth Brumley Las Vegas Review-Journal

Years later, when Schumacher’s daughters were old enough, she took them to classes with Joyce, too. “I knew the minute I had my (first) daughter that she needed Joyce,” Schumacher says.

Rachel Martin began attending Joyce’s classes in elementary school and says that the best thing about them “wasn’t even necessarily the art we were making. It was about the community we formed, all of us kids, and the way she talked about life lessons and not necessarily about making perfect art.”

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West Prep students partake in an art summer camp at the late Joyce Straus' home in Las Vegas. Elizabeth Brumley Las Vegas Review-Journal

Typically, class would begin with the day’s project, Martin says. “We’d have a break in the middle and we’d smell her baking bread and pies, so we’d all flock out there and have a snack. Then we’d go outside and kind of socialize and go back in, and at the end we always sat down and did her ‘Joyce’s Choices,’ her words of wisdom, and we’d chat about our lives.”

Jessica Marshall, who took classes or assisted Joyce at class from kindergarten through 12th grade, says Joyce encouraged students to “just let your imagination take off.”

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West Prep student Shanette Roberson, 15, holds her handmade pot and planted herb she made at an art summer camp at the late Joyce Straus' home in Las Vegas. Elizabeth Brumley Las Vegas Review-Journal

“She was such a strong and inspiring woman on her own that it helped students feel that they could accomplish anything, even if it was a medium kids hadn’t worked in before,” she says. “It didn’t matter, because Joyce said, ‘You can do it.’ It gave everyone confidence.”

Joyce “was like the Pied Piper of kids,” says Barbara Molasky, whose daughters studied with Joyce. “They never wanted to come home.

“You’d come to pick them up, and the house smelled of fresh-baked bread, and the kids were all sitting at her feet and talking. It was amazing. I was jealous. I wanted to be on the floor with them.”

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West Prep student Aracely Hernandez, 11, left, and Core Academy instructor Rachel Martin during an art summer camp at the late Joyce Straus' home in Las Vegas. Elizabeth Brumley Las Vegas Review-Journal

Continuing her legacy

Joyce’s family is keeping her work alive by continuing to offer lessons in her home, which family and friends know affectionately as the “House of Straus.” Last week, students from Core Academy spent a day planting herbs and flowers in coiled clay pots they had made, learning Gelli plate printing, working with fused glass and designing skateboards.

Joyce would have particularly loved the lesson student Kelsey Rose Reyes Perez learned in glass class: That, she says, “every broken piece has beauty in it.”

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West Prep student Shanette Roberson, 15, plants a rosemary in her homemade clay pot at an art summer camp at the late Joyce Straus' home in Las Vegas, Thursday, July 13, 2017. Elizabeth Brumley Las Vegas Review-Journal

Former student Marshall, who also owns Miss Daisy, a Las Vegas floral studio, now teaches at the House of Straus. “It’s a great way to give back, and just to be in her house is very moving,” she says. “You almost feel her presence in that space, and for me it’s a very peaceful, happy place.”

It’s a great way to give back, and just to be in her house is very moving. You almost feel her presence in that space, and for me it’s a very peaceful, happy place.

Joyce died in March 2013 from the effects of a brain tumor, about nine months after her husband died from the same thing. David and Heidi have created a nonprofit organization, the Joyce Straus Foundation for the Arts, to keep her work alive and her classes in session (joycestraus.com).

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Joyce Straus in her home in Las Vegas. Photo provided by Straus family

In one studio at the House of Straus hangs a white board, unerased, that bears what turned out to be the last lesson Joyce would teach. Among the day’s bullet points: “Be Realistic. Expect Miracles.”

“She was like a unicorn. She was a hidden treasure,” Molasky says. “I feel very fortunate to have been able to be part of her world.”

Joyce’s Choices

As part of every art class she taught, Joyce Straus led group discussions with students about life and issues they might have been facing, often based on a collection of thoughtful sayings and sage advice called “Joyce’s Choices.”

Straus died in 2013, but the traditions she created continue. Here is an affirmation, in Joyce’s own words, recited by a class of young women last week:

”I am perfect just as I am.

I am grateful for my life.

I know my inner strength.

I will be kind and helpful.

Who I am is not what you see.

Who I am is deep inside.

I am perfectly imperfect as I am.”

Contact John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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