Teenagers take a turn styling public art

Bronx students learn and earn as they help create a garden exhibit

Urban life - especially in New York - can sometimes feel like a journey through one turnstile after another.

There's a place in the city, though, where these everyday obstacles are being transformed into a chance for philosophical exercise, thanks to a collaboration between an artist and a group of student apprentices.

"Everything and Anything" - a grid of 49 turnstiles inscribed with carefully nuanced phrases - is being installed in Wave Hill, a 28-acre public garden in the Bronx. Starting Sept. 15, visitors will engage in a game of life choices as they navigate through the exhibit.

Willie Cole, whose work has been displayed at New York's Museum of Modern Art and other venues nationwide, is doubling as a mentor as he guides the 10 high-schoolers through the creative process. For their efforts - everything from pruning lawns to crafting the featured phrases - their wages start at $5.75 an hour, similar to what they could earn scooping ice cream cones or selling clothes.

The larger goal of the project - set in a lush garden with stunning views of the Hudson River - is to forge a direct relationship between student and artist. Following a trend in the arts-education movement, Mr. Cole is helping the students understand art in new ways, while at the same time helping them gain confidence to make the very choices they are portraying in the exhibit.

'It allows you to explore'

Tristan Benitez, a recent graduate of John F. Kennedy High School, says working with Cole has expanded his definition of art. "What he sees as art may not be exactly what you see as art. But after you begin to work and talk, it opens your mind to a whole new idea of what art is," he says. "It allows you to explore, if you want to."

The turnstiles, ubiquitous in Mr. Benitez's childhood, take on a new meaning as the group debates how choices will impact the visitor. Some of the "choice" phrases suggested in a recent discussion: "Everything achievable." "Everything that pleases your family." "Anything worth loving."

Watching Cole walk across the site with a handful of the students, it's clear that the learning - like a turnstile - works in both directions. They observe the lawn, how it's interrupted by a 100-year-old Copper Beech tree and bordered by walls and wildlife. Cole's views on how to place the turnstiles are different from those of the students, but in the end, he agrees with them. "The interns bring a new energy to the process," he says.

Creative collaboration

Commissioning an artist to create an installation with students is an annual practice at Wave Hill. Jennifer McGregor, the visual arts curator, says Cole was chosen this year partly because his approach to art - what she calls thoughtful and spiritual - lends itself to the learning process. Students get a chance to see how his stream of consciousness plays out in his work, how his ideas change and the art changes in response. "It's important that they not just observe art," she says, "but become part of the process of making art, to experience the trial and error...."

As the students begin to face pre-college choices that can seem daunting, their experience with Cole can be encouraging.

"It's an experimental time in their lives; they are asking, 'Do I want to go to college? What do I want to study?' " says Margot Perron, director of education and public programs at Wave Hill. "Working with Cole helps them to be more articulate, to say what they mean."

But the project is also about encouraging them to think creatively. They do reading and writing assignments, including keeping a journal. Discussion topics range from the symbolism of everyday objects to the importance of solving problems collectively. As the group hones the phrases to be printed on the turnstiles, or creates a blueprint for placing them on the lawn, Cole's task is to help them turn their personal choices into a collaborative piece of art.

"Even though it is personal to us, with our own words and phrases, at the end it is a collective effort," Benitez says. "The turnstiles are the accumulation of all of our personal choices in life."

"Everything and Anything" is part of the larger Forest Project Summer Collaborative, a seven-week internship for high school students. The 10 interns working with Cole - all returning from an internship last summer - also work in the woodlands and take field trips to meet with environmental professionals. Last year, they studied science and ecology at a local college.

Many come to Wave Hill with scientific backgrounds. One requirement is that the students have at least a B average in two or more science courses.

Starting with science

"Our larger goal is to make city kids environmentalists, so they can some day represent their own communities," Ms. Perron says.

"It's a very different kind of learning," she adds. "They start looking scientifically at the world in their first year and then artistically in their second. It's a different way of seeing things."

Jennifer Minaya, who will be a senior at the Bronx Leadership Academy this fall, has always wanted to paint, but considered herself a biologist, not an artist. Now that she's worked with Cole, she says she might be an artist, too. "I was nervous at first," she says. "But you learn artists are just like us: They can create some things, we [biologists] create others."

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