Susan Robinson had always been grateful for her upbringing in the Minnetonka area, but she had never considered how important the foundation laid in those early years would be throughout her life. A few years ago, Robinson was raising her daughter as a single mom after losing two husbands to cancer. It would have been easy for her to turn inward and fixate on what she had lost, but instead she chose to focus on gratitude, channeling the appreciation she had for her support network of family and friends into a new venture that would help others find loving families—families that could last a lifetime.
A 1981 graduate of Minnetonka High School, Robinson attended the University of Minnesota before moving to Florida, where she met her first husband and had her daughter, Clara, who’s now 22. Robinson was an energetic young mom, frequently volunteering at Clara’s school, often taking the lead on art-based activities. “There is a uniqueness about kids’ art; I love seeing what they can do with colors,” says Robinson. “I would always think, ‘This should be in more places.’”
When Clara was 10, her father was diagnosed with cancer, and Robinson was overwhelmed with taking care of both her husband and young daughter. Thankfully, her family stepped in to help, often taking overnight flights and sleeping in hospital waiting rooms alongside her. “It was literally a rotating support system,” says Robinson. “I realized then that the strength of family lasts a lifetime.”
The idea of using children’s art to benefit underprivileged children started taking shape in Robinson’s mind around that time, but it wasn’t until Clara started college and Robinson returned to Minnesota in 2012 that she started trying to make it a reality. “I had gotten remarried and lost my second husband to cancer 17 months after the wedding,” Robinson says. “It was devastating, but I was still able to parent with family support, and Clara came through shining with a lot of gratitude. That was the seed that started it all.”
In 2013, Robinson founded Foster Art Company, which takes art created by children, in workshops and school art classes, and sells high-quality prints of those works on its website. Twenty percent of the company’s profits are donated to organizations that help children in the foster care system. Currently, that money goes to an advisory fund, which is dispersed by the Minneapolis Foundation, one of the nation’s largest and oldest community foundations. (The Minneapolis Foundation is headed by former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak.) Foster Art Company partners with local schools and arts organizations like Minnesota Youth Community to provide opportunities for young artists, some foster children themselves, to make a difference in the lives of their peers.
Each piece, from abstract paintings made by elementary-schoolers to landscapes and pen-and-ink portraits crafted by young adults, is legally copyrighted and donated to Foster Art Company. Robinson scans and often returns each piece to the artist, allowing them to retain their original work while Foster Art Company creates prints to sell on the company’s website for use in people’s homes or offices.
“Our mission is supporting kids, not just art,” says Robinson. “By changing your walls, you can change a life. You can get something awesome with a story and a meaning behind it. Your powder room can make a difference!”
Robinson hopes that by highlighting the creativity and generosity of children, her company is not only spreading awareness about the hardships of the nation’s 400,000 foster children—roughly 12,000 of whom reside in Minnesota—but also dispelling some of the stigma surrounding those in the system.
“People assume foster kids are damaged or badly behaved, but it’s through no fault of their own that they don’t have homes,” says Robinson. She cites issues like parents’ drug addiction or abuse that can lead to children being put in foster care. Robinson doesn’t claim to be an expert, but she believes that helping connect kids with loving families to provide them with a solid foundation can help them thrive and reach their full potential as adults.
“That support is so important early on,” Robinson says. “At 18, these kids age out of the system, and they don’t have parents to guide or help them.” She cites first-hand accounts of the life-changing power of adoption from the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids and Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, partners of Foster Art Company. “Each of these kids has a story, and as soon as they find a family their lives change. It’s amazing what adoption can do.”
Robinson’s philosophy is symbolized by her company logo, a minimalist silhouette of an adult elephant facing forward with a baby elephant standing on its back, looking in the other direction. “Elephants have a matriarchal system, and they’re committed to the longevity of their families,” she says. “The point of a parent is to look ahead, and kids are supposed to goof around and look sideways and backwards. It’s about the joy and fun of childhood [that allows kids] to be free, while the parent directs and supports.”
In addition to the money that Foster Art Company donates to better the lives of children in the foster care system, Robinson notes that, for those kids who participate in the workshops, the process of creating art can itself be a transformative experience.
Not long ago, Robinson held a workshop for foster kids where an 18-year-old man was dropping off his younger sister. “He said he was just there to give her a ride, that he doesn’t do art,” she remembers. “Three hours later, I couldn’t get him to stop painting. He told me that it was three hours of not worrying, just getting to be and relax. Now we have a piece of his on our website.”
Currently, Robinson is working on finding new and impactful ways for her small business to help foster children. For example, a possible partnership is in the works with a printing company that employs youths aging out of the foster care system and teaches them valuable job skills.
No matter where the venture takes her, Robinson’s roots remain deeply planted in the lake area, where her passion for giving back was first formed.
“I love this area, and right now there’s a studio in Excelsior that lets us hold workshops in the back, but I’m still making it up as I go. My dream is to have an actual studio with retail and work spaces, where local kids can do after-school workshops. I’m a strong believer in energy, and if we can work with kids to create awareness that not everybody has their life, it goes a long way.”
Artwork is available online and occasionally at pop-up shops at West Elm in Edina and at the General Store of Minnetonka. Robinson offers custom framing and design consultation options, as well as wholesale discounts for retail clients. To learn more about how you and your kids can help foster children through Foster Art Company, visit the website here.