LA Teens Weave Their Own Stories into the American Fabric

I’m the artistic director of artworxLA, a nonprofit arts organization that combats the high school dropout crisis by re-engaging students in their high school education through long-term sequential arts programming. Formerly called the HeArt Project, artworxLA has spent the last twenty-two years bringing professional artists into continuation and alternative high school classrooms to inspire students to embrace their own creativity, challenge their preconceived notions, and create a space for their creative voices. Our success as an organization rides on the amazing artists that live and work in Los Angeles and the fabulous cultural institutions with which we partner every year.

This school year we partnered with the Skirball Cultural Center. Inspired by objects in the Skirball’s core exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, 550 students were invited to explore their identities as individuals and community members and to draw parallels to the American Jewish experience. Over the course of ten weeks, students from twenty-five schools worked with teaching artists to explore the immigrant experience across cultures, connect the past to the present, and celebrate their unique American identities as a collection of cultures and heritages. For a minimum of two hours each week, students, teaching artists, and workshop coordinators diligently collaborated to find a creative pathway to explore these concepts. The resulting projects included performance pieces, music mash-ups, short films, poems, and visual artworks.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Each of the three series of ten-week workshops culminated with a public presentation at the Skirball, where students presented their artwork to one another and to members of the community.

Students from Angelus Plaza worked with Teaching Artist Clinton Patterson to develop a short story about immigration journeys that was set to music and included projections of original works of art. Photo by Robin Sukhadia.

Students from Angelus Plaza worked with Teaching Artist Clinton Patterson to develop a short story about immigration journeys that was set to music and included projections of original works of art. Photo by Robin Sukhadia.

They also toured the galleries via a modified version of the high school tour, American Identity: Immigration in the Age of Diversity.

Central High School students from Mar Vista Gardens view the Synagogue Gallery in Visions and Values. The police cap is a prop for this student’s later presentation, where she told the story of a classmate’s family’s immigration experience. Photo by Peter Turman.

Central High School students from Mar Vista Gardens view the Synagogue Gallery in Visions and Values. The police cap is a prop for this student’s later presentation, where she told the story of a classmate’s family’s immigration experience. Photo by Peter Turman.

Above left: Teaching Artist Peter Wu and a student from All People’s School view student artwork on display for the day at the Skirball. Above right: Students from Pueblo de Los Angeles High School worked with Teaching Artist Javad Butah to perform original sound scores that explored their heritage and personal histories through music. Photo by Peter Turman.

Above left: Teaching Artist Peter Wu and a student from All People’s School view student artwork on display for the day at the Skirball. Above right: Students from Pueblo de Los Angeles High School work with Teaching Artist Javad Butah to perform original sound scores that explore their heritage and personal histories through music. Photo by Peter Turman.

The Skirball opened its doors to our teaching artists and staff, providing exhibition walkthroughs and training that enabled us to continue to strengthen the ways we encourage our students to create theme-driven art. Working with the Skirball has been an exemplary partnership that has inspired our students, teaching artists, and staff to honor the individual threads of the American tapestry while understanding the strength of those threads as a collective.

 

As Artistic Director for artworxLA, Shelby Williams-Gonzalez has the privilege to work with Museums and Cultural Institutions throughout Los Angeles to bridge the gap between the art world and the classroom.  With thirteen years of experience in the arts education field, she has taught dance and performing arts for Los Angeles Unified School District, The California Dance Institute, and A Place Called Home. Coincidentally, Shelby has performed at a Skirball school performance with Viver Brasil—a dance and music company dedicated to bringing the rich cultural experience of Bahia, Brazil to the stage—where she is a dancer, choreographer, and rehearsal director. She also has a healthy obsession with beautiful shoes. Next time you see her in public, take a look at her feet!

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