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Works in Progress

With art, students in L.A. transport themselves. Away from grime and gangs, into worlds of color, promise and hope.

August 22, 1996|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Evans stands in back, watching a dozen young artists work in quiet concentration. They have embarked, he says, on an awakening, seamless and immeasurable, as they learn to see the world, paint it--and save themselves from it.

In an old Los Angeles firehouse, converted to a studio on Hobart near Adams Street, Evans and his assistant instructor, Edgar Arceneaux, share a belief that with enough work and enough paint, young artists can cover past mistakes and brush a new layer over life's uneven shades.

Evans, senior graphic designer at Warner Bros., is program director of Art on Saturdays, an outgrowth of the ART (Art Resources for Teens) Team, which he co-founded in 1992. He grew up in Watts and remembers a similar program, Tutor Arts, which helped cultivate his own awakening.

The program helped him understand that it was OK to be himself, that there was a place in the world for those "with the gift," and that such a gift was to be respected and nurtured.

Fire Station 18 began operation in 1906. It has survived because a group of artists, including Evans and Wendell Collins, the caretaker who lives upstairs, believes it has a place in sculpting the future of students who limn in the margins of their texts, turn in assignments with algebra on one side and Spider-Man on the other or spray paint walls and buses with cryptic messages.

These are signs that the students are searching, says Evans, because that is what you do when you are lost.

*

Reyna Mendez and Horacio Serrano were two of the original ART Team members chosen to paint a mural for a South-Central branch of the Los Angeles Employment Development Department in 1993.

Before painting the wall, Evans, 48, took students on field trips, including one to the L.A. County Art Museum, a place they had never been. They discussed art and artists in planning the message they wanted to convey with the mural. What emerged were tulips and parrots, creamy clouds floating above a park, a girl in a swing.

"They wanted to see beauty." Evans says. "They wanted to see tranquillity, and they wanted peace in their lives."

Mendez and Serrano had attended Jordan High School together. Serrano had committed himself to the military upon graduation because he knew of nowhere else to go, and he knew he couldn't stay.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," he says, "but I knew what I didn't want to do. I didn't want to be in a gang, and I didn't want to spend my life loading trucks or something like that."

After working on the mural, Serrano realized he wanted to pursue art rather than the military. He and Mendez were given part-time jobs with EDD and both enrolled at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

Last summer, Mendez, 20, died in a fire, unable to escape the blaze and bars on the windows of her home. Her dreams, which came to life in a firehouse, died in flames.

A week after Mendez's death, Serrano was shot in the back two blocks from his home. Injuries forced him to quit school. He lost his job and had run-ins with the police. He was unable to attend Mendez's funeral.

"He was spiraling downward," Evans says. "I saw him slipping away, and I knew I had to keep pushing him and refusing to give up on him."

Serrano, 21, eventually returned to the program and to Trade Tech. He has worked with artist Richard Wyatt on murals at Union Station Gateway Intermodel Transit Center, the Metro Rail Western-Wilshire station and the Alma Reaves Woods-Watts Branch Library. He hopes to become an illustrator or designer, have a family, a home in a safe neighborhood.

That is the direction he has found, and that is the awakening Evans quietly witnesses as he stands in back of the room. He now observes the students with a greater sense of urgency.

"Reyna's death taught me how fine the line is," Evans says. "Part of the thing of trying to give them a skill is to give them something that will hold them together, as well as give them direction in life and give them sanctuary, so at least they live another day."

*

Soon after Mendez's death, as if by fate, a young man living just up the street from the fire station surfaced at the program. Although unrelated, his name, too, was Mendez, and his passion, too, was art. Rudy Mendez, 20, was a tagger.

"He had this look in his eyes that he could take on the world," Evans recalls. "He had this energy about him. I said, 'Here's the charcoal and here's the paper. We're here every Saturday, so prove yourself. If you want to do something with your life, if you want to change your life around, show up every Saturday and I can work with you.' And he did."

After joining the program, Mendez earned a scholarship for a night class at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

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