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Program Combines Street Art, Reading Lessons : Mural Painters in Class by Themselves

September 01, 1988|JAY GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — On a recent summer morning, 29 teen-agers from low-income homes gathered in MacArthur Park, an oasis of green in a graffiti-scarred section of central Long Beach.

Like their fellow teen-agers in gangs, these youths had come to the park to make their mark with paint. But there the similarity ends, for these teen-agers use paint to create murals that beautify rather than scar neighborhoods as part of a city youth employment program.

"I like the whole program," said Ray Jackson, a 16-year-old aspiring artist. "I use my creativity and I definitely feel good about that."

Painting murals is popular among program members, young people between the ages of 14 and 21 who worked a 30-hour week at $4.25 an hour painting under the guidance of two staff artists until the nine-week program ended Wednesday.

The 29 muralists were part of the city of Long Beach's Summer Youth Employment Training Program. This year the program hired 620 teen-agers from low-income families to work in a variety of jobs such as clerks and hospital workers. Only a lucky few, the young artists said, get paid to have fun and paint murals.

But some in the mural program felt less lucky.

This year the federal government, which funds the program, required administrators to provide classes to improve reading skills for those who need them most, said Toni Forde, program coordinator.

Thus, for three hours two mornings a week, eight of the teen-age artists had to attend a reading class before they could join their friends. They were paid for their class time and those who refused to attend were docked, a price most in the class could not afford.

The eight were selected because they scored below their grade level on a standard reading test administered by youth program staff, Forde said.

The class was decidedly unpopular with most of the students.

"I'd rather paint with the others," said Tammy Perkins, 15. The class, she said, "is just like school."

Although Antonio Pedraza, 14, said "it could be a good program for those who like it," Luis Buckhalter, 16, said the class was unpopular because "it's summer."

Teacher Felt Intimidated

It wasn't easy for the 28-year-old teacher Viki Yamashita, either.

"At first it was intimidating," she said. "To be there with eight people and get no cooperation, it was hard not to take it personally."

Faced with a group of teen-agers who resented being in class and were frustrated by their lack of reading skills, Yamashita decided to embark on a curriculum relevant to her students.

So she concentrated on practical skills such as letter writing, resume preparation and how best to screen newspaper want ads for jobs and apartments. The class also prepared a newsletter about the mural program.

"My concern is to keep them coming and learning things that will help them," she said.

On a recent overcast morning at the Mark Twain Library in central Long Beach, Yamashita guided her class through the paces of writing a resume, a task pursued with an obvious lack of enthusiasm by most of her students.

Only One Volunteered

Gradually some of them warmed up and began to respond. The only student who volunteered for the class, Danny Stallworth, 14, frequently jumped ahead of the discussion and answered questions asked of others.

"The class helps, " Stallworth said afterward. "Next year I'm going to high school and this will help me. I want to be as smart as anyone else."

Once class was over, the students took up brushes and joined in the painting.

The mural group has completed 14 paintings along the fence enclosing the old Sears site on Long Beach Boulevard between 4th and 6th streets. Many of the brightly colored panels, which are 4 feet high and 24 feet long, feature scenes of youths reading books with titles such as "Computers Are Fun" and "Winning With Numbers" while dreaming of becoming a scientist or a doctor.

The group's final work was painted on large wooden panels set against the fence enclosing the tennis court at MacArthur Park on Anaheim Street. The teen-agers painted an 8-foot-high, 48-foot-long mural on half a dozen panels. The panels will soon be attached to the side wall of a nearby mini-mall that is often the target of graffiti writers.

When a wall is covered with a mural, it is usually less likely to become a target of gang graffiti, said Ramon Sanchez, 17, who has spent four years in the summer program.

"What gangsters want is a blank wall so people will be able to see their names up there," he said. "They leave murals alone."

Artist supervisor Keith Williams stressed that the mural program gives teen-agers more than a paycheck.

"Just their coming in contact with art and being exposed to it is enriching for them," Williams said. As for Yamashita, she said she considers the reading class to be a success.

"I don't expect them to walk off and say, 'She really helped me,' " she said. "But maybe five years from now they will pull some of these skills out of a hat and it will help them."

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