Free Arts Minnesota helps youth to move beyond “at-risk” label and define themselves

Last night the Wells Fargo Community Room at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was filled to overflowing, as teenagers and their families celebrated the opening of a new exhibition.

Nearby, close to 50 hooded sweatshirts, or “hoodies,” are on display, featuring images and drawings the kids have worked on over the past eight weeks. One says “Love is Love,” while another says “Dreamer.” Others boast geometric designs or rap lyrics.

The mood is both jubilant, and bittersweet. As some of the teens introduce themselves for a panel discussion, they also list how many days or months they’ve been sober. Each time the crowd cheers.

Close to 50 hooded sweatshirts are on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts this weekend. They are the result of an eight week arts project involving dozens of at-risk kids.

The 100 participants in “Identity Ink” come from three different agencies in the metro area serving at-risk youth. Some suffer from a combination of mental illness and addiction, while others have parents who are in rehab. For many of them, celebrating an accomplishment with family and friends is a rare and cherished experience.

The program is run by Free Arts Minnesota with help from the MIA.  Last year a similar eight-week program focused on photography; this year, it’s screen printing, taught by MCAD instructor Natasha Pestich with help from her husband Dennis Lo.

Free Arts Executive Director Dan Thomas says this summer’s program was called “Identity Ink” because they wanted to give the kids an opportunity to explore how they want the world to see them.

“These kids are labeled in so many ways – ‘abused,’ ‘traumatized,’ ‘homeless’ – and we decided to turn it around.  Art is about helping them to define who they are from the inside, rather than labeling them from the outside.”

“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” says Mari J., “because I did it all on my own. It’s my own design and it represents me.” (MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)

Before embarking on their own projects, the kids toured the MIA, stopping to examine nine pieces related to the theme of identity.  Then Pestich and Lo, along with Free Arts volunteers, paid weekly visits to the Omegon Residential Treatment Center, Headway’s Day Treatment program and Perspectives after-school program.

A recent visit to Omegon in Hopkins found girls giving each other high-fives as they printed their images first onto sheets, and then on to their sweatshirts.  Downstairs the boys worked in a separate classroom, more quietly, but with equal enthusiasm.

Seventeen-year-old Bryce had already finished his sweatshirt, and was now trying his hand at a blind contour drawing. But he took a break to show off his other finished pieces.

“I just draw whatever pops into my mind,” Bryce said. “I really like graphic design, and I’d like to be designer someday.”

Later, speaking at the reception, he added “I don’t want to end up in the hospital again… and I don’t want to hurt my family anymore.”

Bryce F., 17, holds up the front of his sweatshirt, which also includes an elaborate design on the back. (MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)

Laurie Moser, Supervisor of Headway’s Day Treatment program, said the kids she works with benefit from having artists like Natasha Pestich work with them closely over a period of weeks.

“A lot of these kids don’t have positive adult mentors in their life,” Moser said. “And so to have these artists coming in, giving them support, and telling them they can do it – when so often the message they get is that they can’t do it – each piece that they get is a stepping stone, and all of those stepping stones help to put them on a different path.”

Moser says the time spent making art is what is called in psychology a “reparative experience.”

Kelly Wesner with Omegon Residential Treatment Center says it’s important for teens in recovery to identify a fun sober activity, and art is a perfect fit.

“Shame and self-esteem is such a big issue for teens in our program, and the arts helps them express that. Once that happens in the arts sessions it trickles out to other areas of their program. One of them actually said ‘I’m worth it’ when she was speaking tonight – that was pretty amazing.”

Once the show comes to an end, the kids will be able to wear their sweatshirts, proclaiming the identities they’ve chosen for themselves.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Jenna Rieder for her help.