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With the Kids

Creating hopes, dreams

Theatre of Hearts/Youth First gives at-risk children an opportunity for artistic expression.

October 09, 2003|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

If she were to paint her hopes on the wall in front of her, Joanna would first draw a doctor or, perhaps, a teacher. She wants to help people, she says, the way she helped her grandfather before he died. His death marked the saddest moment of her life.

The painting would include a family of her own, but even now she thinks about the possibility of ending up alone. Perhaps she would get a puppy.

That's about it, she says: a job helping people, a family, a puppy. It's a little or a lot.

Before she started learning about art, she likely would have looked at the wall and seen only a wall, looked at her life and seen only her reflection in the mirror. Art, she says, helps her to see beyond reflections, to life's possibilities and the slow unfolding of dreams.

Through a program called Theatre of Hearts/Youth First, Joanna helped paint the signature piece for "Cool Art 2003 -- On the Road: Criss Crossing Cultures," which will be on public display at the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles from Friday through Dec. 30.

The exhibition will feature the work of the students as well as black and white photographs from a separate project called the Inner Gaze: Photographic Workshop of Guelatao, a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, where the exhibition will travel after its L.A. showing.

In the collaborative piece Joanna helped create, the sky is yellow, the color of enlightenment. There are three people, as well as the sun, moon and clouds, a downtown skyline beneath a series of circles representing community and peace. The painting has no name.

"I wanted it to be about peace, where everybody can get along and understand each other," Joanna says. "It's hard to explain." The 16-year-old has stumbled a bit, which is why she attends Western Academy, an alternative school for students who, for a variety of reasons, did not succeed at their previous schools. Many attend by court order and are on probation. Joanna was ditching classes and falling behind before going to Western.

She had always enjoyed art but didn't think she was particularly good at it. In fact, she told Theatre of Hearts artist/mentor Tomisha Jackson that she couldn't do the first assignment, a comment Jackson hears time and again. Step one, Jackson says, is convincing students they have something to contribute.

She does so by telling them they have important stories to tell, stories that can be told with a paintbrush or lump of clay, charcoal or found objects, through dance or song or any of the arts.

"There's a treasure, a jewel of creativity inside all of us," says Jackson, one of about 300 artist-mentors in the program. "And however it articulates itself, it comes from the same source. Creativity is a language we can all understand each other through, with the foundation of mutual respect. That, in itself, is a technique. Through patience, everything else will unfold."

Artist Michael Massenburg has been a mentor in the program for 10 years. The questions raised by art lead to lessons in life, he says: "Are you expressing something based on the events of your life, about how you feel about yourself? Are you documenting something? Are you using your mind to solve problems, to find new ways of doing things?"

Through workshops in visual arts, creative writing, dance, music theater and storytelling, the organization has worked with more than 63,000 young people.

The program's artist-in-residence program started after the 1992 riots as a means of addressing youth violence. Workshops are conducted in schools, juvenile detention facilities and community-based sites.

As important as the voice given to young people through the arts, Massenburg says, is dialogue and the willingness of others to listen. That is what makes "Cool Art 2003" important, he says. It's a way to hear voices of the young through the language of art.

Founder Sheila Scott-Wilkinson says the program attempts to reach young people who need art the most. "These are the youngsters who are considered high risk, throwaway youngsters. In the media, these are the kids in trouble, the kids who can't learn; but when you see the art, you see their skill level and see them for who they truly are."

The same is true with Inner Gaze, says photographer Mariana Rosenberg, who conducted the workshops at Guelatao, famous as the birthplace of Benito Juarez, president of Mexico in the 19th century. "Art is a visual language," she says, "and sometimes it's great not to talk with words."

Among her students when the project began in 1998 was Luna, 14, whose work includes a self-portrait. The details of her face are hard to make out, as she is out of focus, the way young life often is. Her eyes seem dark and heavy.

Another was Abril: "You might not believe it, but I was able to find myself. I became aware of how wonderful my world and that of others is," she wrote in introducing her work on the project's Web site, "and I learned about all the things I'm capable of being and doing."

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