"Even if we aren't talking, we are expressing our feelings through our art." Audrey
It’s tricky to lock into Marcello’s eager, deep brown eyes from the other side of a Zoom camera. He’s a talented young artist fixated on Anime, and does an exceptional job of capturing on paper the likeness of his favorite character. His head is down, for the most part, as he draws an oval with guidelines as if he’s taken a drawing class. But he also squirms and shouts out comments, and laughs at them easily, so we have his number, we just can’t authentically engage. When done, he comes up for air and rushes to the computer lens to show off his finished piece, sometimes two, that he’s rendered quickly but not hastily. His head darts around as he describes the relationship between his drawing and the project’s goals (Naruto is a powerful character that “Cello” aspires to become). So, again, not easy to establish that one on one with a kid via Zoom, but his drawing and willingness to engage in the daily project is the one true discernible goal outcome— that and that he’s super pleased with his work.
The Zoom camera captures just part of the space at Goodman Community Center where
Cultural Connections supports children affected by incarceration and their allies, an off-
shoot of Club Express lead in the Madison schools that specifically serves youth with a locked up loved one. Discussions start early about adversity and resilience and how youth can support youth, and how to rise above stigma and alienation through finding a compassionate audience. When discussions start, some young allies share their own experience with alienation from a parent through mental health and/or incarceration, opening up opportunity for others to hear first hand stories.
Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, the Covid Club Express’s lead artist, quickly learns names and engages the children as if he knows them all. Every session opens with an age-appropriate, culturally-responsive video focused on a social or racial justice issue, the precursor to a discussion about support and allyship. After which, Anwar provides directions to the project and the kids dig in. The Zoom camera has a limited scope. The kids can see us on a large screen, but they are just blurry little creatures doing who knows what—until they exhibit their muse! The boys in the room are vibrant — Ty, Jacoby, Otis, Navid — and are quickly and easily identifiable, even with masks. Ty and Jacoby are also hungry to fulfill the project’s objections, devouring information about art, pattern, design, and incorporating whatever they learn into the work in front of them. But the girls are harder to see from the other side of the lens. They’re shy and tend to move around the room, dancing—or that’s what it looks like to us—but always find their way back to the table, heads down, hard to know what they’re doing until they come up for air and eagerly prance their work across the lens for Anwar to praise. They have a healthy perception of themselves based on their drawings. Essence produces no less than two a session and her images are proud brown girls with lovely eyelashes and a healthy bun tied to the top of their heads. Maisha and Selima produce work in a similar way, beautiful brown girls with hearts and long fancy fingernails. Their smiles say they're proud. They mark their drawings with terms like "Black Girl Magic" and "Black Excellence." Still, authentically knowing these young girls is nearly impossible through a camera lens.
Eventually, we are vaccinated and Goodman opens their doors to our onsite presence where we roll out huge canvases on the basketball court and let the kids go crazy painting large and messy, an activity the pandemic prevented these kids from accessing.
On the North side, 5 Club Express kids from two area schools log into their Zoom accounts every Monday at 12:30. Their backdrop is a viewfinder into the isolation of schooling at home and little access to friends and family. Solomon lives in an extended family home. From our camera, we see a bedroom that looks like its shared with multiple siblings. Audrey lives in a trailer with her grandparents and brother Eli, a transgender 8th grader who sometimes shows up for club. Madi lives with her mom and brother and always shows up but rarely contributes, until Anwar asks her what kind of music she likes, triggering a line up of emo style rock that illustrates her frustration with being an adolescent in a world of unstable relationships. Damien is quiet but begs to be the Zoom admin. TJ, a talented artist at 10, who often takes care of his toddler sister during the day so his mother can work her full time job remotely, eventually becomes overwhelmed by school and a holed-up life of enormous responsibility and drops out. When I ask the remaining 5 why they show up, they respond one by one.
Solomon says it gives him a refuge from his sisters. Damien says because the other kids know how I feels. Madison says it’s a safe place where she can talk about feelings that she can’t with most of her friends. Audrey sums it up for all of them, she says, this is a place where even if we don’t feel like talking about stuff, we can express how we feel through our art.
Like the Goodman kids, warm weather and vaccinations opens up a whole new world for the kids and for us. Because we don’t have a physical site, we show up in nearby parks, roll out the canvases, bring out the buckets of colorful paint, and tell the kids to go crazy. Paint what you feel. Overwhelmingly, the word “pride” ends up in their work.
The year felt piecemeal at times. We did a lot of running around and dropping off and picking up different pieces from around the city to coordinate and collect various projects. And while the Zoom sessions always ended with us in astonishment, what we learned is that an hour directing kids through a creative process over a camera is really about waiting to see what they come up with themselves, how their deviation from the project improved upon it. The puppets were designed to hold the voices of the kids. The Social Justice warriors worked to give the kids a way to connect to powerful words and feelings. The kids dug into protest posters after viewing the book "Let's Talk About It" featuring the Protest art on State Street last summer.
The one cohesive factor that tied the semester together was an invitation to contribute to a mural created by Dane Arts Mural Arts that was commissioned by the Madison Youth Arts Center people. We delivered most of the work the kids created to the DAMA artists and they selected specific images that were made into monochrome outlines that became elements of the larger mural. That process is pictured here. Finally, the kids visited the DAMA studio where they were able to visualize how their work was used. This event is where they met Anwar in person for the first time. And some kids were interviewed by NBC 15 news.
The following week, Anwar worked with the kids onsite for the first time, but as his last session of the year. Once again, social justice messages became the theme of their work. But really, we know it's about spray paint, and house paint, and roller brushes and being allowed to be themselves and messy with few limitations. And if needed, a voice.
This gallery features photos that are the sum of our work partnering with Dane Arts Mural Arts and Madison Youth Arts Center. It shows how the original art morphed into line art produced by DAMA artists and then into patterns used inside the giant abstract panel that will be erected onto the side of the new MYAC building. See if you can find the original images as they appear inside the abstract frames!