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Art for Youths' Sake

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Covered with black-and-white photographs and small drawings, the dimly lighted hallway that leads into a downtown loft here provides only a hint of what is to come. Inside, paintings and drawings take up nearly every inch of wall space. What doesn't fit leans against columns or--like the lamp crafted from old bicycle rims--hangs from the ceiling. The room is a jumble of boards, doors, strips of wood, and paint cans.

Given the rap music pulsating in the background, it seems an unlikely workplace. Nonetheless, one by one the students slowly filter in. It is close to 3 P.M., and a motley crew of teens has assembled with a rush of giggles, gossip, and horseplay--but not for long. While the school day is done, another work day is just beginning for the teenage staff of the City Teens Design Company.

Housed in this 10,000-square-foot studio, the company is the for-profit arm of the nonprofit organization Artists for Humanity. The organization came into existence in 1990, a year after cuts in the Boston school district's budget forced many schools to trim or eliminate altogether programs like arts and athletics. Mourning the loss of a creative outlet for students, Susan Rodgerson and Kate Schrauth found a common bond in their desire to do something that would keep art fresh in students' minds.

Rodgerson, an art teacher, and Schrauth, who worked with many nonprofit organizations, scraped together their own funds and sought donations to establish Artists for Humanity with an artist-in-residence program in middle schools.

After they completed a mural with 15 students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Dorchester, six of the students came to Rodgerson and asked what they were going to do next. Rodgerson invited them to her small studio in the city's South End, and they came, every day.

"I asked them what they wanted to do and listened," she recalls. The young men told her they needed a safe haven from the tough city streets and wanted to participate in meaningful work. Rodgerson decided to start an arts business, City Teens Design, to meet those needs.

Today, the half-dozen students who make up the staff come to the program in middle school and ideally stay until they graduate from high school.

Last spring, Damon Butler, 18, became the program's first graduate. He now attends the Art Institute of Boston under a half-scholarship. He earns the rest of the money he needs through commission projects with City Teens Design. He's currently working on an illustration for the athletic-apparel company Puma.

Working with Artists for Humanity "has given me a real sense of independence," Butler says. "I've been able to expand my boundaries."

Expressing Themselves

The program stresses independence and creativity. Although there is no formal instruction, the first thing every student does is paint a chair. It's the first step in getting the students away from the flat surfaces they're used to, Schrauth explains. The students use the chairs to create their own expressions.

"It takes some kids a few days, and others a few months," she says. "But when they return to the paper, they bring something new to it."

Each young artist also creates a self-portrait. To save money, the portraits are done on discarded doors rather than expensive canvas. The portraits show not just faces, but images of who the students are and what they want to be. Such as the painting of a flower--as a bud, a blossom, and in full bloom--done by Nathalie Desrosiers, a sophomore at Dorchester High School.

Schrauth, who enjoys interpreting her charges' work, says the painting is a metaphor for the various aspects of Desrosiers's personality. The students "put themselves into it and don't stop until it's right because the finished product is who they are," she says. "The art is fresh and exciting."

It is the freshness of the art and design that attracted David B. Walek, a partner with one of Boston's largest law firms, Ropes & Gray.

"It's exciting and good," Walek says. "Although they're teens and amateurs, the art is really fresh and alive. It jumps out at you."

The law firm owns a painting done by one of the teenage artists, Carlos Lewis, and provides the organization with pro-bono services.

Now a member of Artists for Humanity's board of directors, Walek became involved with the program when a client sought his help in securing corporate sponsors for the organization.

Walek also likes the idea that a group of adolescents is earning about art and running a business in an adult way.

"It appeals to me as an art lover and as a member of the business community," he says. "We have a responsibility to the community."

The birth of City Teens in 1992 provided the young artists with not only a sanctuary and a creative outlet, but a paycheck.

From their very first project, the company's co-founders struggled to come up with money, relying on Schrauth's fund-raising skills. Private donors and local businesses pitched in, and soon they were able to put together their first exhibit of students' art in a local gallery.

Donations still make up about 85 percent of Artists for Humanity's income, with the rest coming from the sale of student art. But with the list of prospective projects and programs under way growing like a child's Christmas list, the students hope to increase that figure to at least 50 percent.

Earning a Paycheck

The students' art works (including the door paintings) sell for anywhere from $200 to $2,500 and have been purchased by local businesses as well as national concerns like the locally based Lotus Development Corporation, the software giant. The students' painted chairs go for $500. In addition, they do graphics work for publications, including a brochure for the New England Educational Loan Marketing Corporation. They are working on designs for their own stationery.

They also design T-shirts for local universities with the school logos in graffiti style. The students also produce a line of T-shirts they call "salted," from the street jargon for insulting or being insulted. Each shirt is illustrated with a drawing of an outraged face. The shirts are sold through a local "urban clothing" store.

The students "showed us a thing or two about marketing," Schrauth says. "They knew who to go to. They see how people work out there, and they know the trends."

As a result, last year City Teens Design brought in more than $55,000. So far this year, they have earned a little over $26,000.

The program's founders acknowledge that they and the students have had to work to overcome the racial and socioeconomic barriers that separate them.

Yet, for inner-city youths who are unfamiliar with the worlds of both business and art, the students have managed to get a handle on both. They are included in every aspect of the business, Schrauth says. They create the marketing plans, do presentations for potential clients, hold staff meetings, serve on the board of directors, and market their products and services. This regular interaction with business people has helped lower the barriers.

"For many people, these kids represent what the media has stereotyped for years," says Schrauth. "But then they get together, and it totally changes the focus."

Business acumen and art are not the only lessons the program provides. The program is structured to teach responsibility. A two-month training period is required before anyone is allowed to join the paid staff. During and after that training time, the students must come to the studio three days a week from 3 to 6 P.M. to work on their projects. Their peers review their performance, and they must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average to remain in the program.

Staff members work nine hours a week during the school year and 25 hours a week in the summer. They earn between $5 and $6.25 an hour, depending on their seniority.

Learning Responsibility

Sam Glickman, a sophomore at Latin High School, has been with the program for more than a year and says he's found a place for himself. "My responsibilities have increased with time," Glickman says.

For some, the responsibility is too much. Lauren Talbot, a sophomore at Muriel S. Snowden International School, followed in her brother Jason's footsteps and joined the program but dropped out for a time.

"I left because I didn't want the responsibility," Talbot says. "I came back when I was ready."

Robert Gibbs, one of the program's original members, is now preparing to graduate. He says he's developed not just drawing skills, but people skills.

"I learned to work as one and not be selfish. I don't mind breaking things down to the kids," Gibbs says of his role as a mentor to program newcomers.

While he's decided not to pursue a career in the arts, he knows what he's learned will serve him well in college and beyond.

Artists for Humanity also serves more than 200 participants in other programs, including the Drop-In Project, which gives students access to the studio and instructional programs. A photography program serves 80 young people and is expected to grow when a darkroom, now being built with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is completed.

A new Saturday morning program called Free Fall Art serves children ages 7 to 14.

"Many of the students speak of being able to work together to get the job done," Schrauth says. "Though each artist has his or her own distinct style, they must become integrated in order to work. So many of these kids come from bad backgrounds, [but] they come here and leave those things behind."

Schrauth and Rodgerson would like to see the program spread to other urban areas, so they're pulling together what they've learned in the past four years to set up a model for others to follow.

"Love and respect, that's the bottom line," she says."The students see how things work artistically, how things come together, and they take it with them and use it in their daily negotiations of life."

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