Art Program Offers Life Lessons

TUCKED away on the third floor of a decrepit office building in Boston is a small, one-room artist's studio. Six young artists are busy painting T-shirt designs and sketching city scenes as they listen to popular radio tunes.

The artists are inner-city teenagers, exploring their creative talents through a variety of enterprising art projects that include painting T-shirts, murals, and wooden furniture.

Some show promising talent. Others may never pursue careers in art. But all are building self-esteem and learning to think creatively.

"I really like dynamic pictures of people and monsters," says Jason Talbot, 14, who lives in Dorchester, a Boston city neighborhood.

He enjoys working in the studio, he says, because he's learning new skills, particularly airbrush painting, a technique that involves using a special kind of atomizer filled with paint.

He and five other artists are participating in a career development program sponsored by a private, nonprofit arts education organization called Artists for Humanity, based in Boston.

The group's career program takes in teens from city high schools where the average dropout rate is 30 percent, says Kate Schrauth, program director of operations.

Besides doing art projects, the kids learn about running a business through managing their own art studio and selling their work.

"We basically are teaching these kids how to start their own businesses," says Ms. Schrauth. "This is a student-operated business venture."

Another teen, Robert Gibbs, says his specialty is graffiti art. He says his friends like his T-shirt work so much that he's having a hard time keeping up with their orders. But the best part of the program is "the people," he says. "I get along with everybody. It's like one big unit. Everybody just gets along and has fun."

Jason has also created his own comic-book series about his favorite self-made fictional character, "Mancoon" - a half-man, half-racoon superhero. Mancoon makes frequent appearances in his art work in the studio as well.

He says he likes the career program here because the other teen participants are friends he's known since sixth grade.

"It wasn't like I was walking in a big room with people I never met before," he says. "It was fun from the start."

The teens have also painted images on wooden doors and ladders. On one door, Anthony Garcia depicted a disturbing self-portrait of life for inner-city American youth: A black male figure stands in flames with a target symbol on his chest in front of a huge American flag.

Professionals voluteer to meet with the kids and coach them on management strategies, marketing, accounting, and advertising. Also, student mentors from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management help with career development.

By the look of this cramped city studio, the teens are also learning to work in a creative space that is gritty. Boxes, furniture, and paint supplies are tucked in every possible nook and cranny. Painting easels clutter the middle of the room, and people seem to bump into each other every three seconds.

Amid all this hustle-bustle, just what kinds of things are these aspiring young artist-entrepreneurs actually creating to sell? Painted T-shirts, jeans, and caps, coined "wearable art," are the most popular items for now.

A CLOSE inspection of the T-shirt display hanging on the studio wall here shows a variety of urban images. Some are violent with cartoon-like characters holding guns. Others show fictional super-heroes, colorful designs, or messages written in graffiti-style letters. Besides their own designs, kids make custom-made T-shirts for schools, universities, athletic teams, and other organizations.

The teens come to terms with their fears by creating the violent images, Schrauth says. Thus, their work is both a creative and therapeutic experience, she says.

"They're dealing with their fears, their anxieties through their art work," Schrauth says. "It's a perfect nonviolent expression. It's a therapeutic way to actually be dealing with these issues without destroying public property or hurting someone else."

The creative process also helps them understand their world and think about the future, she says.

"These are the people we need to be talking to, to find solutions [to the problems of troubled urban America] because they experience it every day," she says.

Students need not be young Picassos to join the program. Artists for Humanity's organizers find teens, through guidance counselors, who are not in the top 10 percent of their class and who may "go either way" as far as finishing high school or dropping out, says Schrauth.

The teens are also paid for their work in the year-round program. Ideally, program organizers would like to start kids at seventh grade and continue working with them until 12th grade.

The six students in the organization's career development program were also part of the group's Middle School Murals Project.

In that program, students from four Boston schools work on collaborative mural projects that depict city life, cultural diversity, and environmental issues.

Susan Rodgerson, executive director of Artists for Humanity, says the kids progress in different ways. Many have shown improvement in basic skills like learning how to speak in front of groups and in meeting people.

"In the beginning, they didn't want to go anywhere," she says. Now, they are eager to go to universities and businesses to sell and speak before groups of people about their work.

"Individually, they have all become adept at meeting strangers and being with people who are not of their cultural backgrounds," she says. "They speak in front of people. That has been the most notable change in attitude."

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