AT the age of 5, Lionel Milton astounded New Orleans inner-city school teachers with his accomplished cartoons. Soon he was winning prizes in every citywide art contest he entered. Yet, unable to accept authority, he became a permanent fixture in the principal's office. At 14, he dropped out for a year to twirl and twist through city streets on a skateboard. ``I knew I had the potential to do anything, but I had an attitude problem,'' says Lionel, a handsome youth wearing a denim jacket and one gold earring. ``I was like the good guy and the bad guy at the same time.''
Today, Lionel is a high school junior whose art, featured in Life and Paris Vogue, has sold for $1,500 at Lincoln Center's Cork Gallery in New York. This summer he'll attend the Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia, Italy. ``You just hear about pregnant teenagers and dropouts in the black community,'' he says. ``If you want to know about the positive things happening, come see us.''
The ``us'' Lionel refers to is an artists' guild of inner-city youth called Young Aspirations/Young Artists (YA/YA). Composed of public high school students aged 15 to 20, the group has defied the stereotype of at-risk minority youth and achieved phenomenal success, despite obstacles like a 40 percent high school dropout rate and 63 percent unemployment among young male blacks in New Orleans. One member had been suicidal; another had been arrested; many could barely read and were failing in school. Now, however, galleries from SoHo (New York) to Los Angeles clamor to sell the youngsters' painted chairs at $800 each, and the BBC plans to film their story.
``YA/YA,'' says Carol Chance, principal of Rabouin Vocational High School, where the young people study commercial art, ``opened up the eyes of the kids to what the world is about and how their worlds can change and fit into other worlds.''
``YA/YA is the best thing that ever happened in my life,'' says Carlos Neville, 20, one of the student artists.
The concept of YA/YA began a year and a half ago when local painter Jana Napoli, who owns a gallery in the central business district near the predominantly black high school, overheard disparaging remarks by neighboring merchants. When the students poured out of school each afternoon, ``Everybody closed their doors,'' recalls Ms. Napoli, who is white. ``No one talked to them. They were islanded in this neighborhood.''
Not one to suffer prejudice in silence, Napoli strode into Dr. Chance's office, determined to correct the businessmen's negative opinion of public-school youth. She won Chance's permission to found YA/YA, an extracurricular, nonprofit art students guild, funded by $25,000 from Downtown Development District, a civic organization, $5,000 from the New Orleans City Council, and her own savings.
Working closely with commercial-art teacher Madeleine Neske and her 31 students, Napoli mounted a show of their drawings. The lavish opening at her gallery opened a new universe for the students. ``Some had never been in such a beautiful place and been treated with such respect by middle- and upper-class whites before,'' says Ms. Neske. When the drawings, priced at $15 to $50, sold, ``It flabbergasted the kids,'' says principal Chance, ``giving them hope and courage and a bright outlook for the future.''
Some people might have stopped with this success, but Napoli only intensified her efforts. ``Their background hobbles them, but they can still come out whole,'' she says of the YA/YA participants. ``My job is to take off the hobbles.''
Spurred by the prospect of sales and recognition, the students worked at the Napoli gallery 30 hours a week after school and on weekends, preparing their New York show of ``Story-telling Chifforobes.'' They bought, refinished, and painted thrift-shop chifforobes (combination wardrobe and chest of drawers). Chance remembers watching the ``kids sanding furniture for hours. It was incredible.'' she says.
Neighboring merchants were astounded at the students' discipline. ``The businessmen went home at six o'clock,'' says Napoli, ``but at 11 at night my boys were still in here working, finishing their jobs. This was not the prototype of what others thought these kids were. They're what everyone wishes these kids to be.''
The chifforobes launched the students on the national art scene. ``The show was one of the most interesting and original I have seen in New York for some time,'' says Jenneth Webster, Lincoln Center's associate director of programming. ``The originality of the painters' vision was extraordinary.''
Searing in their honesty, the painters' images lifted the work beyond the merely decorative. ``Powerful boxes of hope and fear,'' Napoli calls the chifforobes, which the youths painted on the outside with images of their dreams and hopes, while depicting their hidden anxieties on inner surfaces.
``I like to clown around,'' says Neville, who drew stylized harlequin clowns on the exterior of his chifforobe, while inside drawers held images of knives, needles, razor blades, and chaotic splashes of screaming primary colors. ``As commercial art students, we never had to draw for ourselves before,'' he says. ``Ms. Napoli's mission is to bring ourselves into our drawing. That's the only way to be successful. Jana teaches us to go for big.''
The artists' willingness to risk such naked candor accounts for the works' psychological complexity and power. Darlene Francis, 17, paints universal human longings for escape. One chair shows a child trapped on an island and, above her, a monarch butterfly fluttering to freedom. The images of isolation and metamorphosis ``show that I want to change and soar,'' says Darlene.
Although they may not transform society, the YA/YA artists have transformed themselves. ``I've learned not to infringe on other people,'' says Skip. ``I was seriously immature before. I would hassle people and I didn't care.''
In school, the students' grades have improved, as have attendance and deportment. All those currently in the program plan to use the proceeds from sales of their work to continue their education after high school.
Napoli defines her interaction with the students as ``life-training. It's what adults are supposed to do with children to get them ready for life. I want them to learn that the magic is in their hands.''
While hoping for the students' eventual self-sufficiency, both Napoli and school officials are cautious. ``The kids are pumped up now,'' says Chance. ``This is great for their self-concept, but we've seen kids with all the possibilities in the world get flushed out right after high school.'' In fact, YA/YA has already lost two original participants. One student stole from the gallery to support a cocaine habit, while another was so severely antisocial that she disrupted group activities.
Napoli acknowledges a host of factors aligned against the artist-entrepreneurs. One liability is the lack of a positive male role model in the single-parent homes of minority youth. Family mistrust of a white woman was initially a problem. ``My mom is always nagging me about I'm never home, I'm always at the gallery,'' says Skip Persley. ``I tell her, `At least I'm not out in the street dealing drugs.'''
The students' parents also fear the economic insecurity of an artist's life. In contrast, Dexter Stewour, 20, believes, ``We need to get our education right now and not have dollar signs in our eyes.'' He quit his job at a fast-food restaurant, even after a promotion, to work at YA/YA because, ``This will be more valuable for my future.''
Although most New Orleanians are proud of their local media stars, Napoli cannot claim complete community acceptance for the students. One neighborhood holdout said recently of their publicity, ``You're like dirt. You're everywhere.''
She understands the mixed emotions. For Napoli, her job is done ``when those kids walk out on their own. Then those young people can turn around to their community and say, `We made it. Come along with us.'''