Teaching Young Students About Art — And Much More Besides, From College To Life

Daymian Mejia edits documentary footage on his laptop at RAW Art Works in Lynn. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Daymian Mejia edits documentary footage on his laptop at RAW Art Works in Lynn. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As a 15-year-old, Daymian Mejia didn’t think of himself an artist. When he applied to Raw Art Works, a nonprofit art therapy organization in Lynn, he was mostly searching for an excuse to get out of the house.

Now, half a decade later, he calls the studio, gallery and meeting space a second home.

The year Mejia enrolled in RAW, he said, was one of the toughest of his adolescence. He’d grown up in Boston and was struggling to adjust to a new life on the North Shore without the freedom and mobility that city transit had made possible. Disillusioned with the competitiveness and financial stakes of the college process, he saw little purpose in schoolwork. He spent most afternoons playing video games.

At RAW’s Reel-to-Reel film school, Mejia found a new “addiction”: the film editing process.

“There was just something about the way you could splice together clips to give off a certain emotion,” he said. “That just completely took me away.”

RAW Beginnings — And Despite Successes, Struggles Remain

RAW came to Lynn in 1994 as the brainchild of Mary Flannery, an artist and art therapist committed to using creative expression to empower at-risk youth. With the help of Kit Jenkins — a fellow art therapist and RAW’s executive director — Flannery opened a studio on the fourth floor of an old retail property in the city’s central square.

Resources were tight: Staff members shared a single desk and computer, investing the limited money they had in high-quality art supplies for students. The first winter, Jenkins remembers, they didn’t even have heat. When she and Flannery brought in paint to decorate the studio’s walls and floor, it froze in the can.

Since then, RAW has expanded onto all four floors of the building and offers nearly 80 programs, ranging from traditional visual art classes in painting and sculpture to printmaking and acting workshops. In addition to art training, all high school seniors receive one-on-one college coaching through a mentorship initiative called Project Launch. Yet despite the strides they’ve made over the years to support students both in and out of the studio, Jenkins said, securing funding remains a challenge.

Her struggle is hardly unique. Across the state, just how much financial backing the arts merit is being called into question.

In July, Gov. Charlie Baker proposed slashing more than half the annual budget for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which provides grants to school and community art programs as well as nonprofits like RAW. While legislators were able to override Baker’s veto, the battle to fund the arts remains fraught.

Too often, Jenkins said, “art is looked at as a luxury, like the frosting on top of the cake.”

This isn’t only true among policymakers, she said; philanthropists are more likely to sponsor causes that address basic needs, such as food and shelter, than art programs. But, Jenkins said, treating art as a frill overlooks a key fact: Those least able to afford art education are also those who most critically benefit from it.

RAW Depicts A Path To College

At Kaitlyn Farmer’s high school, art class consisted of “three primary colors in acrylics, and a bunch of broken brushes.” But at RAW, she could experiment with media from photography to woodworking, using quality materials that made her proud of her work.

A Lynn native, Farmer followed a friend into RAW at age 11, when the organization was still only on a single floor.

“I just fell in love with the community, and the fact that we got to make art, and it was free, and you could express yourself,” she said.

From that first day until she graduated from high school, she came back every week.

But Farmer said the most meaningful part of her time at RAW wasn’t the art. Though she’s always enjoyed being creative — she loves working with watercolors and recently took up restoring old furniture — she’s more thankful to RAW for setting her on the path to college. As a high school senior, Farmer said, she had no one at home to support her through the application process. Her father had passed away when she was young, and her mother, a hairdresser, didn’t have a college degree.

Through RAW's Project Launch, Farmer was assigned a mentor, who held her hand through test taking, essay writing and interviews.

“Having someone who only has to focus on you and dedicates their time to volunteer to support you is definitely the most empowering experience,” she said. “It completely changed the trajectory of the rest of my life.”

In June, Farmer graduated from Emmanuel College with a BA in sociology. While many of her friends have dropped out of school to raise children, she works full time — as the coordinator for Project Launch.

If Project Launch offers teens concrete mentorship separate from art classes, art itself can also help young people hone many of the creative and interpersonal skills they’ll need to succeed as adults. According to Kat Strzempek, who manages ArtWorks for kids — a local arts advocacy coalition, of which RAW is a part — much of what students learn in art programs directly translates to other spheres of their lives.

“Art education is a way for a child to learn a different set of skills than the core curriculum,” Strzempek said. These include responsibility, teamwork and discipline.

If you met Zach Louissaint on the street, you wouldn’t pin him as a singer. Over 6 feet tall, with a wide receiver’s wingspan, Louissaint looks more like an athlete than an artist. In fact, Louissaint’s command of the basketball court caught the eye of college recruiters when he was still in high school, and he’ll run varsity track for Menlo College this year. But Louissaint says he started developing the work ethic that made him a star athlete long before he picked up a basketball, when he began singing with the Boston Children’s Chorus.

Louissaint joined the chorus at age 7, when the organization held auditions at the small Christian elementary school he attended in Forest Hills. At first, he was reluctant to try out.

“Singing was definitely not my forte at the time,” he said. In addition, he’d always thought of singing as an effeminate activity and feared the judgment of his peers.

That all changed when he appeared on national television during BCC’s first annual Martin Luther King Day concert. “To be 10 years old and on TV — that sounded crazy to me,” he said. “It really changed my perspective on the entire thing, like this is a goal I can work towards.”

Program Director Ben Hires feels that maintaining high expectations for students is an essential part of BCC’s culture.

“I think in a lot of these kids’ cases, in their lives, there’s not always the expectation of the highest excellence,” he said. “But here, at BCC, there’s no limit for what these young people can do. And I think musically we challenge them, no matter what age, to really go above and beyond even what they may think they can do, let alone what others think they can do.”

Motivated by the knowledge that others were counting on him to achieve, Louissaint began devoting more and more time to the chorus.

“We would have so many performances and rehearsals that I always knew I would have to stay on top of my music — learning it and having everything done on time and being able to go ask questions when I didn’t know what the answer was,” he said.

The stronger he grew as a musician, the more he pushed himself in other areas of his life.

“I trained more for music than I did for basketball,” Louissaint said. “And I think that in turn helped me train ever harder for basketball when I did.”

If BCC drove Louissaint to challenge himself, it also gave him a safe place to return to when other parts of his life felt unstable. During his freshman year of high school, Louissaint’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chorus rehearsals offered a welcome respite from the “tough time” at home.

“I would look forward to going to music,” he said. “I could sit down for two hours and I wouldn’t have to worry about anything but what notes were on the page and if I could sing them well.”

RAW Program Director Kathe Swaback says offering students a secure and productive space to deal with turmoil — at school, at home, or elsewhere — is also one of the most important roles RAW plays. According to Swaback, art does this both literally and figuratively.

“What the arts allow kids to do is to provide beautiful metaphors, beautiful ways of storytelling, all kinds of ways that you can look at yourself and your world in a space and in a way that can feel very safe,” she said. “Everything can live in the metaphor.”

In addition, Swaback said, art offers teens incredibly safe channels for risk-taking.

“You have teenage brains that are so ready and able to go out and take risks with a reward center that has never been so heightened in their life — so of course they’re going to go to all these other activities that can be very deadly,” she said.

Instead, Swaback encourages students to funnel these potentially destructive impulses into art.

“You have this amazing opportunity. OK, here, try oil sticks, you’ve never tried that before, work on a 6-foot painting, you’ve never done that before — oh, you want to use a chainsaw? We’re going to be using chainsaws today!”

Aspiring filmmaker Mejia is now entering his second year at Bunker Hill Community College. And he believes filmmaking was as critical to keeping him out of trouble as it was to setting him on the path to a future he’ll feel proud of.

“I can’t imagine myself without RAW,” Mejia said.

Had he not discovered the program, he fears he would have “fallen into the wrong crowd” and is certain he would not have applied to college. This is, in part, because of the mentorship he received through Project Launch. But it’s also because, before RAW, he’d never realized you could study something and also fall in love with it.

The day after we spoke, Mejia flew out to Los Angeles to receive a national scholarship sponsored by Adobe. His winning entry is a documentary, “Calling Home.” It follows the challenges faced by first-generation college students as they adjust to life at school.

The topic holds particular resonance for Mejia. He will be the first in his family to earn a college degree.


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