NEW MILFORD — As a child, Sharon Kaufman used the materials she found around her parents’ house to complete school projects.

Re-creating Columbus’ voyage using a camera, a model ship and velour fabric to stand in for waves particularly stands out.

Even though she lost interest in school as she got older, class projects that expressed her artistic skills kept her engaged.

Now, as the executive director of the Village Center for the Arts, Kaufman is helping area students have similar experiences through her program, Unexpected Artist.

“As you study and learn different components of a project, and when you build it out of papier mache and put labels on it, you know that material inside and out — literally,” she said.

Through the program, teachers submit art projects they’ve assigned to their classes, and their students come to the center to create their projects for free.

Students come with their own ideas and reference photos, unless they can’t afford to print the pictures ahead of time, and discuss ways of accomplishing their projects with center staff and by using the reference books at the center. Students are also able to use the wide selection of art supplies and other materials.

By offering this help for free, Kaufman said, she’s allowing projects that might not have been offered before — because not everyone could afford them — to be reincorporated into the curriculum.

Parents and staff must let the students do the work on their own, although the staff can offer guidance.

“When you’re here, you’re not a kid who plays with art,” Kaufman said. “You’re an artist who happens to be a kid.”

The center has offered the program for five years, with funding from the Union Savings Bank for the past three years. But Kaufman said more money is needed to keep the program going and to spread the word. If backers raise $3,000 by May 11 through CrowdRise, an online fundraising site, they are eligible for a $100,000 grant. If the center raises the most money in its region, it will win an additional $25,000.

So far, the center works with 15 schools within 45 minutes of the center. Kaufman said she hopes to expand this list if the center receives the grant.

Collin George, 13, of New Milford, who has done several Unexpected Artist projects at the center, appreciates when his teachers incorporate art in other subjects. When students have the freedom to create their own projects, he said, they feel ownership of them — and the projects end up looking awesome.

He said art projects also give him a better understanding of the school topics involved, as well as art techniques.

“When I did my Aztec temple, I realized how intricate these temples were,” he said.

His artistic eye has also developed an appreciation for other topics he was asked to create projects for, such as when he created a tabletop mountain.

“You can actually see the history of the mountain from looking at it,” George said, adding that he used 20 different shades of grays to capture it. “It’s really cool.”

George has been coming to the center for years and considers it a second home where he can express himself freely. Through the program, he’s been able to share this with his classmates. Some of them scoffed at the idea of art, but are now planning on taking art classes or doing a summer camp at the center.

Kaufman said these new students are where the “unexpected” part of the name comes from.

Michelle George, Collin’s mother, said she’s thankful for the program and that her son can come to the center with his friends.

“I’m creative, but I’m not artistic,” she said. “(The staff) offers that expertise. Also, you don’t have to buy a whole thing of pipe cleaners because you need two.”; 203-731-3345