Nestor Grajeda wonders how poverty and violence exist in a city as wealthy and powerful as Los Angeles. But the 16-year-old from East Los Angeles did not know how to express resentment about his city's contradictions -- until he became an artist.
On a recent morning at Soledad Enrichment Action Charter School, Grajeda put his thoughts onto a page. He created a mural depicting a big home and an expensive SUV next to a man with a bloody face.
"I can show the suffering that goes on," he said. "L.A. is beautiful, but it's not perfect."
Grajeda is finding his creative voice through the Theatre of Hearts/Youth First program. Since 1992, the nonprofit organization that teaches visual and performing arts has served 68,000 young people ages 4 to 18 across Los Angeles County.
Many are homeless, pregnant, disabled, poor, neglected or depressed. The program partners with more than 300 professional artists who visit schools, churches and juvenile halls to work with youths.
The Times Holiday Fund has contributed $25,000 to the program this year.
Art reflects their hopes and fears, said Sheila Scott-Wilkinson, director of the program. A former actress who taught art in prison, Scott-Wilkinson created the program after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
She saw a need for the arts in underserved communities at a time when funding for it was being scaled back in schools and it was replaced with testing and rigorous academics.
"We help them find their motivation through the arts to self-expression," Scott-Wilkinson said. "They start to become involved in life and they start getting enthusiastic. It opens their psyche to all possibilities."
Scott-Wilkinson has seen the effect that art has had on young people's lives.
She remembered one class in which three members of rival gangs refused to work with each other. An artist-in-residence from Theatre of Hearts/Youth First insisted that they had to. Reluctantly, the three boys agreed. They painted three separate panels that connected into one large piece called "Light in the Sea," depicting a lighthouse shining across deep-blue water.
Another time, Scott-Wilkinson sent an African American artist-in-residence to a school in Lancaster, where most of the students belonged to white supremacist gangs.
In the beginning, the students refused to work with the artist. But he persisted. In the end, they accepted him as a mentor, and some even came to consider him a friend.
Some students in the program had never painted, written poetry, sculpted or performed until they joined. Scott-Wilkinson's office is decorated with their paintings and drawings. The pieces include one by a sneaker-loving teenager who drew himself dressed as the boy president of the United States.
In another, a girl painted a scene of the lavish life she wished she could have. An incarcerated boy drew himself as free. The art that hangs in her office can be lent to local businesses, law offices and residents for a donation through Scott-Wilkinson's art lending program.
Nestor Grajeda never took an art class when he attended the overcrowded Garfield High School. He transferred five months ago to the Soledad Enrichment Action Charter School, a small campus with an art curriculum that works closely with Theatre of Hearts/Youth First.
The campus is often the last stop for students who have been kicked out of a school or who have struggled to keep their grades up at a regular public high school. Nestor said his newfound fascination with art has opened his mind.
On a recent afternoon, the artist-in-residence -- Cici Segura Gonzalez, a painter -- played Mozart as Nestor and other students quietly created murals. Julian Cerezo, 17, made a mural of U.S. soldiers. He included the words: "Bombs Fell on Baghdad." It reminded him of the friends and neighbors he knows who joined the military and are fighting in Iraq.
Gonzalez said art unleashes their imaginations. Reserved children paint portraits of themselves with green Mohawks. Often teenagers paint in pastel colors at first, but she pushes them to use brighter shades because they "want to be bold, but they are afraid to."
Steph Lady, a Soledad Enrichment Action teacher who works with Gonzalez, said his students come from tough neighborhoods. They arrive to class with "adult armor," but this program helps them take it off.
"These are kids who are mostly in the shadows, who were mostly on the fringes of these big schools," Lady said. "This arts program permits them to become kids again."
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