ALAMEDA -- At just older than 2 years, André Borchardt is your average toddler: loud, messy and adorable.
He runs fast, grabs things off tables and dumps toys all over the floor. He forgets to use his "inside voice," draws on the wall and touches everything with chubby, paint-splattered hands. His mother, Eza Borchardt, doesn't tolerate this behavior. She loves it. In fact, she has built an entire business around André's right to make a mess.
Out of context, one would never take Borchardt for the owner of a children's art studio. In her black pencil skirt and fashionable shoes, she could be on her way to work at a Parisian fashion house. But spend a few minutes watching her at Le Petit Matisse on Encinal Avenue, and any doubt about the match is put to rest. This is her calling.
On a Tuesday morning, Borchardt sits at a whirring potting wheel, as absorbed in the wet clay as the miniature artist whose work she supervises. "What do you think? Does it look like a nice bowl, or do you want to squeeze it a little more?" she prompts with a melodious Brazilian-Portuguese accent. "That's a beautiful bowl, Mackenzie!"
At a table nearby, 2-year-old Rhyal Dunsany rolls his clay through a pasta machine.
"Ball," he exclaims cheerfully to anyone who will listen. André occupies himself by the window, impishly upending a box of chalk onto the floor.
Borchardt grew up in Brazil "surrounded by art." Her uncles are all
She initially planned to follow her father into medicine, enrolling in a pre-med program at the University of Utah.
"I couldn't convince my Dad to pay for education abroad in art," she said with a laugh. But after three years, she found herself in California studying art, fashion and interior design.
"I realized that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life -- something artistic," she said.
Borchardt lived in San Francisco for several years after art school, designing her own line of Brazilian-made women's shoes and working as a nanny for children with special needs. She assumed that her blend of art and people skills would eventually come together. Then, in a way she could not have predicted, "things just fell into place."
In 2010, Borchardt was six months pregnant when she began to feel labor pains.
"I was about to go on a pre-baby vacation with my husband," she recalls, "and instead I ended up at the hospital."
More than two years later, she still tells the story with a bit of disbelief. Born at 26 weeks and five days gestation -- barely past the point of viability -- André weighed only 2 pounds, 4 ounces. He spent two and a half months in the neonatal intensive care unit so that doctors could monitor his tiny, underdeveloped respiratory system. His pediatrician warned Borchardt and her husband that it would take him two full years to catch up to his full-term peers.
André's middle name is Matisse, which in French means "gift from God" (André means "warrior"). After bringing him home from the hospital, Borchardt set out to give him the best possible start in life.
"Art has always had a therapeutic effect on me," she explained. "So I started sharing it with him. I played him classical music all the time."
One day, when André was 14 months old, she put him on the kitchen floor with some paint.
"I just let him go to town. I wanted to let him get messy," she said with a smile. "Kids need to get messy to experience the full effect of everything. And I just watched him looking, looking, looking at all the colors and touching everything. It was the most beautiful thing."
Borchardt began painting with André several times a week and began to notice improvement in his fine motor and other skills. At his 18-month checkup, his pediatrician reported that he was fully caught up -- six months earlier than had been predicted.
"I firmly believe that his success was due to all the art and music," Borchardt said, kissing his shock of frizzy blonde hair.
Now with an active toddling artist on her hands, Borchardt began to wonder about the safety of the paints and other supplies she kept in the house. To ensure that André only came into contact with nontoxic materials, she began mixing paint in her own home with spices, fruit extracts and mineral ocher. Used for thousands of years to create color, these naturally occurring ingredients lack the dangerous substances found in many synthetic ones.
When Borchardt moved to Alameda, she immediately began looking for an art studio.
"I was asking everyone -- all my mom friends, all the playgroups and there was no art studio for kids," she said.
Now hooked on doing art projects with André, Borchardt saw only one option -- which was to begin her own studio. Five months after opening Le Petit Matisse, Borchardt is exactly where she wants to be. Her products, from the toddler-sized paintbrushes to the facial-quality clay, are all locally made. She offers six different classes, including "Splatter Time," in which 1- and 2-year-olds are encouraged to fling liberal quantities of paint. Borchardt's goal for Le Petit Matisse is to provide a physically safe space in which kids can make art and to inspire creativity in a new generation of artists.
The space itself is welcoming and kid-friendly, but it is unlike any other indoor play space. Borchardt's students make real art with real supplies in her studio. And were it not for the munchkin-sized chairs, it could pass for any professional artist's work space.
Borchardt hopes to share her love of art with kids and maybe convince a few parents to relax and get their hands dirty as well.
"Like Picasso said," she said, "'Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.' I want to be able to preserve that in children as long as possible."
With her impeccable style and ability to communicate in five languages, Borchardt brings an air of sophistication to Le Petit Matisse. But she will be the first one to tell you that the studio is not about sophistication. It is about André and kids like him getting really messy.