The concept of an “arts economy”, whereby art (be it visual, musical or theatrical) is an incubator of economic regeneration has been heralded of late as a tool for urban revitalization, including right here in the District. The Temporium projects popping up in various neighborhoods across the city are an excellent example of this phenomenon. While it is now being (re)discovered that arts can contribute to an urban area’s economic vitality, often overlooked in this discussion is the role arts can play in elevating our human potential.
Overlooked perhaps, but it is happening nonetheless right in our backyard at Life Pieces to Masterpieces. Started in 1996, Life Pieces to Masterpieces is a Ward Seven-based nonprofit working with boys and young men to help unlock their academic and social potential and transform their neighborhoods, using the visual arts as a key component in this journey. Since its inception, LPTM has engaged over 1,500 youth in Wards Seven and Eight in afterschool, weekend and summer programs, yet until my editor sent me on assignment to learn about their new Corporate Art Program, I was unaware of their existence. As the Corporate Art Program gathers momentum, that quiet, under-the-radar existence may soon be changing.
The morning sun is beaming through the classroom windows of the Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School, home to LPTM’s offices and workspaces (the DC public school system supports the organization with pro bono space). I begin my tour with Selvon Waldron, the organization’s Development and Grants Manager. While the hall is quiet now, the afternoon will be bustling when 80 young boys arrive for after-school tutoring and arts enrichment. LPTM bases their curriculum on a unique human development system (for which they have a trademark) upholding the “four C’s”: connect, create, contribute and celebrate. This curriculum is realized visually as a “shield of faith” – an octagon with color-coded attributes including ideals like loving, arts, giving, and leadership. The shield of faith is literally an emblem of what it means to be an adult contributing to society, and LPTM continually references these attributes in all facets of their curriculum. The end goal is to provide these boys and young men positive male role models and help them connect with the wider world outside their immediate environment.
Boys enter the program as early as preschool, and LPTM breaks their “apprentices” (as they are called) into age groups based on emotional and scholastic development. Preschoolers and kindergarteners learn to connect a color with an attribute on the shield of faith. When an instructor asks a student a question, his cohorts clap – even before an answer is given – reinforcing positive feedback for speaking in front of the group. Waldron walks me into a classroom for boys aged five through nine and it immediately feels “older” – more academic. At this age the curriculum starts to hit home, as the boys continue to develop the emotional maturity to understand the concepts being taught. Boys aged 10 to 14 continue with the shield, with a renewed focus on understanding what it means to be a global citizen, open to different peoples and contexts. As young men of high school age, the apprentices move into the weekend and summertime immersion programs, aimed at preparing them for college or other forms of post secondary education.
I was keen to understand how LPTM uses art-making to reinforce its curriculum. Waldron ushers me into one of the art rooms, where canvases line every wall and student creations in various stages of development cover the floor. While the boys are encouraged to run wild with their creative imaginations, I was struck by the tight structure in which the arts program operates. Larry Quick, co-founder of LPTM and professional artist in his own right, has developed a model arts curriculum emphasizing teamwork and the integration of all age groups into the production of an artwork. Waldon explains to me art is, “an analogy for human beings. We [all] start life as a blank canvas and things are added in.” The youngest apprentices are taught about colors, and in the art room are encouraged to simply paint colors on canvases around the room. These canvases form the tools for older students.
As their emotional maturity develops, apprentices are encouraged to journal about their lives in the classroom setting. Thoughts, feelings and ideas discovered during these journaling sessions are brought into the art room, where the young men discuss their experiences and collaboratively come up with a theme or idea for an artwork. They work together, fleshing out the idea and sketching a rough draft to paper. Utilizing the colored canvases created by the youngest apprentices, they cut out shapes and color blocks that correspond to their sketch. Finally, the oldest apprentices fine-tune the design and then sew (yes, they are taught to sew!) all the pieces together onto a painted canvas, creating a work entailing both painting and collage. I noticed that finished pieces are signed merely “LPTM”, emphasizing the collaborative nature of the piece – it is not “owned” by any one individual.
The results are striking, especially as Waldon describes some of the pieces’ back stories. Art-making isn’t therapy, but the results can be therapeutic in the sense that the process LPTM uses forces the young men to visualize and verbally express the thoughts in their head. For example, one series of works themed “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”, features cut-in-half sneakers mounted on a variety of backgrounds – from Minimalist to Pollack-inspired drip works. Waldron explained to me why the shoes are emblematic. In neighborhoods plagued with violence (and let’s face it head on – these are the
neighborhoods where these boys live), pairs of sneakers are often strung up on telephone or power lines to mark a location of a shooting and/or death. Here the apprentices are utilizing artistic practices to confront traumatic feelings about their immediate surroundings. Other pieces in view around the room investigate themes of neighborhood empowerment and political engagement (I enjoyed seeing quilt-like portraits of President Obama and Governor Romney sitting side by side). These works are best described as “outsider art” and I think Quick would be proud of that moniker. The goal isn’t to steep children in sophisticated art techniques, turning them into Picassos (although several apprentices have used their training at LPTM as a stepping stone into artistic careers). Rather, art ignites an innate passion to experience the world.
Life Pieces to Masterpieces is a not-for-profit entity, relying on grants and contributions for revenue and a variety of volunteer groups for tutoring and in-kind support. As with all 501(c)3 organizations, developing steady revenue streams outside of grant-making bodies is desirable. The leadership had never considered selling the apprentices’ works, feeling that these were personal expressions not to be profited from. However as more and more outside individuals and groups approached them with requests to purchase or publicly exhibit works, the Board wondered if there was a way to ethically leverage this trove of art (approximately 1,000 pieces) into funding that would enable LPTM to expand their services. In the summer of 2011, they called together a focus group of parents to discuss the possibility of selling and/or leasing works to the public and using the sales revenue to expand their operating budget. The parents were overwhelmingly in favor, and with their blessing, LPTM started their Corporate Art Program, which sells art to local businesses (or individuals!) or allows them to lease a variety of works for public display. Waldron highlights that one is not merely buying a piece of art, but also buying into the mission of the organization and its view that artistic creativity generates human potential.
The Corporate Art Program is still relatively new, but will be expanded in 2013. According to Waldron, LPTM has already signed up several local businesses to lease artworks, and 100 pieces have been put on public display or sold. Plans are already underway to both revamp their online store and increase their engagement with community businesses and organizations. At a time when both arts and extracurricular activities face funding cutbacks in school budgets across the country, LPTM is an organization that deserves our support!
For more information about Life Pieces to Masterpieces, visit their website here.