Harlem Teens Gain Savvy In Art Market

Design workshop helps artists develop skills in painting and marketing textiles

IT'S a Thursday afternoon in Harlem. On the second floor of a nondescript building on 122nd Street is Harlem Textile Works, where a handful of people are working on varying tasks of textile production.

Hamis Abdul-Hakim, aged 16, carefully traces a pattern over a lightboard. "I like design. It lets me express myself the way I want to," says the junior from La Guardia High School.

Hamis is one of many youths who has had the opportunity to come here for employment and experience in the design business.

Founded in 1984, Harlem Textile Works is a subsidiary of the Children's Art Carnival, a nonprofit arts-education organization that has served thousands of New York City kids for nearly 25 years.

These days, Harlem Textile Works is enjoying a splash of recognition due to its unique mission. Not only is it a cutting-edge design company, but it also offers youth education and employment, community service, and artists' workshops.

This day, executive director Kerris Wolsky explains that a licensing contract has just been finalized with Springs Industries, the major bedding and sheet manufacturer. She also received a call from an automobile maker inquiring about trends in colors and patterns.

"That kind of exposure is really tremendous," Ms. Wolsky says.

The small firm - occupying only 2,500 square feet (a facility of this nature is normally double or triple that) - generates about $100,000 in sales a year. "It takes us about that much to make that much," Wolsky says with a sigh and smile.

Harlem Textile Works is the only hand-printing production facility in Harlem and one of the few in the city. Artists, up to eight at any given time, mix and manufacture their own pigments for the hand-print production.

Although the facility itself may be cramped and lackluster, the textiles that go out its front door are vibrant. The designs may end up on sheets, T-shirts, or as fashion accessories and wearable art such as hats, tote bags, and scarves. They could also show up on table linens, shower curtains, greeting cards, and gift wrapping. Clients range from nationally known department stores, mail-order companies, choirs, and specialty stores to local little leagues, boutiques, and fledgling theater companies.

Inspiration for the textile designs is visibly linked to the community of Harlem, considered by many to be the capital of African-American culture. Patterns are created from children's artwork, original African textiles, or works of local artists.

What makes Harlem Textile Works stand out from other art programs around the country is that it not only develops a concept, it makes the finished product, Wolsky says. "We go beyond the arts for art's sake, beyond arts for education; we view arts in terms of actual product. A lot of people are creating workshops taught by professional artists, but only a few have the mechanism in place for finished, saleable products."

To that end, teen-age and adult artists here develop a wealth of experience in the business of producing and selling textiles; not just the creative side, but merchandising, marketing, and quality control.

Though each participant is a paid employee, not all seek full-time careers in fashion, textile design, or graphic arts. But work experience is the most vital for the teens, Wolsky says. She adds that working with adult artists helps the young people learn responsibility. In addition to their regular work for the firm, adult artists have spinoff ventures; likewise, the teens squeeze in their personal projects.

Karanja Cordice, aged 17, shows one of his graphic designs on a T-shirt. "I'm into abstract," he says, specifically "zigzags and squares." Then he challenges a reporter to find their common initials - K.C. - in one design, accented in red, green, yellow, and black.

The recent surge of interest in Harlem Textile Works is testimony to several trends in consumerism and fashion.

Many consumers, for instance, are looking for ways to buy products that are socially responsible, much in the same way they might buy something that is environmentally responsible.

"People gravitate toward us for that reason; buying something ... which sponsors employment [for] kids and supports community efforts," says Wolsky.

Often shoppers seek out products that symbolize grass-roots efforts.

"We have a relationship with certain retail customers who promote that ethic.... They want to consume with a more meaningful purpose. There's a sensitivity out there we've been able to link [up] with.... What they purchase represents something in a tangible form.

"Also ours has a little bit of a fashion bent," Wolsky notes. From a fashion perspective there's a lot of interest in African design, even with the so-called "grunge" wear that promotes mixing items from different cultures and decades.

For the future, Wolsky says she would like to see more public interest generated in Harlem Textile Works and to further develop contacts in the apparel industry.

To fortify the program, she would like to see more support from foundations and additional internships with schools to bolster the educational component.

Wolsky is encouraged by the national youth service program proposed by President Clinton: "We're a perfect setup for that type of thing."

Michael Unthank, director of the state-local partnership program with the New York State Council on the Arts, gives Harlem Textile Works high marks. "We're very proud of them. The quality of all activities is very high ... and it's in a growth kind of mode."

From an artist's perspective, the Textile Works' survival is paramount, says Wolsky: "It's important because it is a program that can affect the individual paths that artists take. Every day I work with two or three generations of artists - still working in arts, still employed in arts, and setting a direction for the future....

"That's the legacy that keeps communities strong, keeps the design business strong, and keeps America strong."

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