In the hallway outside the city council meeting room last month, a group of teenagers leaned into each other and grinned as multiple cameras flashed. People passing by paused to say “Congratulations!” The teens – former participants in the Ann Arbor Art Center’s Artmakers Teens summer outreach program – had just received a 2009 Golden Paintbrush Award from the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission for a mural they created last summer.
Standing and smiling with them was Sarah Winter, an Ann Arbor Public Schools art teacher and project coordinator for the teens who created the mural. Winter said she was happy about the award, and called working with the Artmakers a “truly amazing experience.”
However, it was also bittersweet, she said.
“There’s no funding for the program this summer,” Winter explained. “It was great for the teenagers in a lot of ways this past summer, and now it’s over. I’m very sad it’s not happening this year.”
Marsha Chamberlin, the art center’s president and CEO who also serves on the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, explained that they hadn’t been able to raise the $20,000 needed to run the program, which offers teens the experience of working in an art studio, including monetary compensation. The center only managed to raise $6,000 by late May. This year, corporate donations – which contribute a large portion of the funding for Artmakers – have been down, Chamberlin explained.
Although the center applied for grants from some foundations, they hadn’t heard back by the end of May. By that time of the year, the center usually has all the money it needs for the program, Chamberlin said. Without that funding in place, Artmakers wasn’t possible this summer.
The center usually receives donations from 8 to 10 corporate entities for Artmakers, Chamberlin said. This year, they’ve only gotten money from two or three. One difference this year is that people and corporations have changed their “nature of giving.”
“Some people are supporting us, but they chose to direct their gifts somewhere else,” she said. “In at least one case, they saw a more important need in supporting the art center in general.”
Chamberlin declined to name the foundations that the center applied to for grants, and said she didn’t know why their grant application wasn’t funded. The money the center already collected came from gifts, donations from TCF Bank and a University of Michigan student group that fundraised for the center this past spring. That $6,000 would simply “sit in the bank” until it can be used for a subsequent program, Chamberlin said.
“It’s kind of unfortunate, because it’s at a time when the kids have even less opportunity,” Chamberlin said, noting the lack of options for work elsewhere.
How Artmakers Got Its Start
It all started with a drive-by shooting in Ann Arbor.
At least, that incident was part of the inspiration for the 1996 genesis of the summer outreach program, according to Chamberlin.
The shooting made her and others think about what they could do to help the larger community. Ingrid Sheldon, the mayor of Ann Arbor at the time, saw a presentation at a national conference concerning a program designed to help at-risk youth. The mayor spoke to Chamberlin about it and sent her to a training session in Chicago, and the result was the center’s outreach program for teens in Ann Arbor. Chamberlin said former city council member Jane Lumm also proved helpful in the program’s development.
Artmakers is essentially a job training program using the arts, Chamberlin said. “Kids apply like you would for a job.” To be admitted to the program – which accepts kids ages 14 to 18 – teens fill out an application that gives the center staff an idea of their social and financial status, using measures such as family income. In addition to the application, teachers and guidance counselors may write letters of referral for Artmakers applicants. Finally, teens write an essay explaining why they think working in the art studio will benefit them.
The center staff then reviews the applications, letters and essays and selects a group of youths to call in for an interview. About a dozen kids from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have participated in the program each year, although that number varies depending on the funding available. Chamberlin recalled that the center used to admit up to 30 kids to the program per session, years ago.
It costs about $1,600 per youth to run Artmakers each summer. Part of that money goes into paying the participants. The program provides a workplace atmosphere – teens have to fill out timesheets, work in the art studio from 1 to 4 p.m. five days per week and have a limited number of allowed absences. As compensation, they get a $75 stipend each week.
“Like any job, we want to recognize and reward them,” Chamberlin said. She added that since most Artmakers kids come from impoverished backgrounds, they use the money to support their families. “One boy two years ago had a 16-year-old sister who was pregnant,” Chamberlin said. “He gave everything he earned for the summer to her to buy stuff for the baby.”
Over the course of six weeks, participants work with three different kinds of media, spending approximately two weeks with each. For the past couple of years, a project coordinator/master teacher has determined the curriculum, Chamberlin said.
But it’s more than art alone – the program teaches teens how art skills can translate into the workplace. The program also teaches workplace etiquette like how to dress appropriately, Chamberlin said, as well as how to work well with other people. “That helps form bonds and communication patterns so they can learn from each other,” she said.
Artmakers also helps build a sense of self-esteem, Chamberlin said. This year, a girl who’d attended Artmakers called Chamberlin and asked her to come to her high school graduation and talent show. “Three years ago, she could hardly make eye contact,” Chamberlin said. “And now she’s onstage performing. Something we did in the program gave her that courage.”
The program has other success stories. Chamberlin described one boy, a “tremendous artist,” who started working with Toyota (one of the program’s sponsors) designing cars. He later attended the College for Creative Studies and got an internship with GM. “He’s just done tremendously well for himself,” Chamberlin said.
For other kids, the program simply introduces them to a wider world. Chamberlin recalled one 16-year-old boy from southeast Ann Arbor who told her he’d never been to the city’s downtown before. “It was just dumbfounding,” she said.
She explained that the program benefits teens such as that boy by allowing them to “get out in the big world.”
Making the Mural
The mural on the wooden wall behind the art center features three figures posing against a sky filled with dark, flowing clouds. They’re dressed in modern clothes (jeans, tank tops), but their pedestals and postures speak to ancient art. The landscape behind them is flat and barren, with mountains rising up along the horizon.
Eleven teens contributed to the award-winning mural: Kai’Lyn Wilson, Mareka Armstrong, Muhammed Abdul Basir, Terrance Blakely, Sam Fenner, Holly Granger, Vanessa Marenco, Amber Miller, Cody Pan, Maja Robakiewicz and Dennis Scherdt.
Winter, who worked for Artmakers for three years, including last summer, called the summer 2008 cohort a “really special group of kids.” She said the teens got to know each other and shared their ideas, displaying “such a collaborative vision.”
As for the mural, Winter called it “one of the coolest art-making processes I’ve ever been a part of.” Artmakers had done a mural as the program’s final project twice before, but “a lot of us were not happy about the ones we’d created before,” she said.
They had two weeks to finish the mural. The teens spent the first week planning: sitting in the classroom brainstorming, sketching, and “just having a really vibrant discussion,” Winter explained.
With previous murals, Artmakers groups had only formulated “loose plans” before following through with the project, Winter said. This time, they put in more thought beforehand. They also got tips from set designer Monika Essen on how to plan and execute their vision, Winter added. Other artists who spoke to the teens during that summer’s program included art historian Lisa Schramm and mural artist Mary Thiefels, among many others.
The final painting ended up being a combination of a variety of ideas. Winter recalled that one student liked the idea of Greek muses, while another liked Salvador Dali’s style. The art history they’d learned earlier in the program also influenced the mural, Winter said.
Along with those influences, the teens found an overall theme to tie together their work. “Somewhere along the way, we got into the topic of them – the teenagers – and their generation,” Winter said.
The teens discussed how they fit into the “vast history” of art. In accordance with this idea, three of them posed as models, imitating the stances of well-known, historic sculptures like Winged Victory and Venus de Milo, Winter said. They also represented the muses of music, tragic poetry, and astronomy.
“They actually went outside and stood on pedestals,” Winter said. “We took multiple pictures of them.”
Once they had all their ideas together, the group created a small-scale sketch of the painting. They then drew a grid over it and drew a similar grid on the wall where they planned to paint the mural. Groups of students worked on transferring individual squares of the grid from the sketch to the wall.
In the past, teens have had a “this is my section” attitude about working on murals, Winter said. But this time was different and more collaborative. “This was really neat because everybody felt like they had a voice in the plan,” she said.
Kai’Lyn Wilson, who took part in Artmakers for three summers from 2006-2008, described working on the mural as both fun and educational. “It was learning, but it was fun and interesting,” she told The Chronicle after the awards ceremony on June 1. “We took our time.”
Wilson, who said her love of art motivated her to participate in the program, worked on painting the background: the sky and clouds. Like Winter, Wilson described the funding situation for this year’s program as “very sad.”
“It was a good program,” she said. “I wish we could’ve done it without being paid.”
Artmakers in 2009 and Beyond
While Artmakers isn’t happening this summer, Chamberlin said it isn’t over for good. She said the center has received enough contributions to run the program in September as four hours of studio time every Saturday. Calty Design (Toyota’s design center in Michigan, located in Ann Arbor), TCF Bank and the UM Ross School of Business students (who auction off their art annually to raise money for the program) provided the necessary funding.
“It’s a program we have run for 11 years, and we’ve seen the value of this program.” Chamberlin said, adding: “This is a really unique experience for those kids. For $1,600 a kid, it’s a really positive impact on their lives.”
About the author: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.