Chicago teens deal with effects of violence through art
Painting out their feelings
08/01/2012 10:00 PM
Looking from a distance, the painting is a depiction of an enormous eye. But as one comes closer, the image inside the eye comes into focus. A blood-red chalk outline is sprawled in the middle of the empty city street. The dark colors reinforce the bleakness of the scene.
For the young artist, the image is not an abstraction, not a reflection of the news headlines — it is a reality of day-to-day life.
The painting is part of “Stop the Violence With Art,” an exhibit currently on display at Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art. The exhibit is an outgrowth of a collaborative program between the museum, Kartemquin Films and LuchArte, a West Side art initiative that seeks to engage the high-risk youth. The students from Community Art Sustaining Academics (CASA) after school program, LuchArte and Yollocalli Arts Reach, the museum’s youth outreach initiative, were asked to create something that expressed how they were affected by violence in their community. The exhibit aims to give the young artists wider exposure and counter negative stereotypes about low-income, minority teens.
The exhibit draws on work of teenagers from Pilsen and Little Village neighborhood, as well as from the suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn. Most of the artists come from immigrant families. As Eddie Bocanegra, the co-founder of LuchArte, explained, violence is a constant presence in their lives.
“Violence is something they’re exposed to every single day,” he said. “Either at home or on the street. It’s really common.”
In many cases, they live in neighborhoods that don’t have many resources or recreational opportunities.
The parents tend to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, which leaves them little time for their children. Dr. Frank Gayten, the Northeastern Illinois University sociology professor who co-leads LuchArte with Bocanegra, told the Chicago Journal that many neighborhood teens join the gangs simply to have a place where they can feel like they belong.
“[The kids] are looking for guidance,” he explained, “and unfortunately, a lot of time, that source is gangs. Gangs provide the sense of community, the sense of family. Obviously, the gangs are violent, they participate in illicit activities, but they provide identity and structure.”
The teens that take part in LuchArte initiative were either involved with the gangs or have been approached by gangs in the past. As Bocanegra explained, the program provides safe space for the kids to express themselves and talk about how they feel.
“The program gives kids space to be comfortable,” he said. “A safe space to talk about what they feel, what they’ve seen. We choose to do painting, mainly because if you walk around the neighborhood, you’ll see a lot of street art.”
Bocanegra says that art helps them deal with their feelings constructively and gives them a sense of purpose. It also improves the students’ sense of self-worth.
“It’s another way for us to validate what they are, as people,” said Bocanegra. “A lot of time they see them in saggy pants, the way they look, the way they speak. They’re look as a margined population. We seem them as people who are bright and gifted, who have a lot to offer to the world.”
Not all the work produced by students in LuchArte and other programs made it to the exhibit — there simply wasn’t enough room for that. But the work that did appear showcases a fairly wide range of techniques and subject matter.
Most of the pieces don’t address the violence directly, but the worries and concerns of the artists are readily evident. Mimi Ramirez, who lives in Little Village with her mother, drew an image of a loving, two-parent family. “Come to a complete STOP,” a collaborative piece, rails against violence, bullying and forced deportations. In “Stars,” Maro Mendez shows the universe limitless in potential. His artist statement reads, in part:
“Who am I? I am not a gangbanger, but a lot of people get that impression. It’s not true. They think that because I’m from Little Village, the hood. […] I’m trying to stay out of trouble and get a job.”
Other art is more personality-driven. Antonio Martinez drew graffiti art on seven records, with records chosen based on the songs they contain. “Best Friend” and “Love Bug” by Frenando Caldera depicted creepy, yet oddly endearing creatures that would not be out of place in a Japanese cartoon.
According to Bocanegra, the past few months have not been easy on the students.
“The kids don’t necessarily read the paper,” he said, “so they don’t necessarily know that the homicide rate is up compared to last year, but they know when something happens on their block.”
Many of their friends are still in gangs. As the result, the teens in the program feel torn between doing what’s right and doing right by their friends.
“To be honest, it’s a tug-of-war,” said Bocanegra.
Still, the fact that their work is displayed at a major museum has been a major source of pride for the students. And according to Jose Luis Gutierrez, NMMA’s Associate Director of Art Education, the community response has been positive as well
“The attendance has been great,” he said. “Close to 200 people came on the opening day. We had good media coverage. We’ve also had people interested in purchasing the students’ artwork. So, overall, it’s been good.”