Struggling Youths Get Help From Art Project

Martha Caballero works on kaleidoscopes as part of the Two-County Turning Point Mural Project.
Martha Caballero works on kaleidoscopes as part of the Two-County Turning Point Mural Project. (Photos By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Akeya Dickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Nancy Morning's first challenge last summer was finding the perfect young artists for an innovative new project.

She talked to school counselors, checked general equivalency diploma lists and asked around.

By early this month, she had managed to assemble a dozen apprentices, ages 17 to 23, for the Two-County Turning Point Mural Project, a 20-week public art program that provides art training and practical experience for young people whose lives have fallen far off course.

"It was challenging to find them because the program is designed for out-of-school youth," said Morning, a job developer with the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center in Langley Park, one of the project's co-sponsors.

The participants have varied backgrounds; some have dropped out of school and earned GEDs and others have graduated but need help figuring out what to do next. They receive a stipend for 10 hours of work each week in planning and producing a mural that will stretch along 500 feet of a state-owned retaining wall separating Prince George's and Montgomery counties at New Hampshire Avenue and Piney Branch Road. Project organizers say they hope the mural's youth-inspired designs and themes will discourage the gang graffiti prevalent on the wall.

West Hyattsville resident Melty Castillo, 17, learned about the program through his job developer while attending a GED class. Mainly interested in graffiti -- on paper he insists -- and painting, Castillo said that using some of the techniques he has learned in the program has been a little different from what he usually does. But the experience has been enjoyable, especially earning the money, he said. Although he likes graffiti, he said he understands what many others think of the unsolicited art form.

"I know some people think it's wrong, but they don't see it the same way I do," he said. "I guess I wouldn't like someone to do that on my property, unless it looked good."

The arts project, also co-sponsored by the nonprofit Arts on the Block youth training program, the Prince George's County Police Department and other local organizations, teaches participants about different aspects of art, such as color theory and art styles. It also provides job readiness training during the weekly Tuesday sessions.

Group members brainstormed abstract concepts for the wall, three feet tall at its lowest and 20 feet at its highest, and they expect to focus on choosing a design this week.

"We chose a kaleidoscope motif for the wall, because it's abstract and won't include any text or represent any particular culture," said Carien Quiroga, lead artist for Wheaton-based Arts on the Block. "We wanted to have a tangible inspiration, and a kaleidoscope is more than just about pretty colors; it's a metaphor for change."

Resembling a classroom of students at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, the young artists huddled last week around tables with pieces of colored glass, glue and craft tools scattered about, intent on deciding the precise placement of each piece of the mosaic.

Newcomer Carlos Walker, 20, who attended Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, said his artistic techniques of choice are sketching and drawing. He was brimming with ideas for the turning point concept of the mural, ideas inspired in part by his past.

"I think maybe for one side of the wall we should put some bad things and then transition into good ones," he said. "I'm inspired by my background because I had to stop hanging out and getting into fights. I want to be a counselor and help young people, so they don't have to do some of the things that I've done."

Interested in sculpting and working with clay, Cristina Salvador, 19, a graduate of High Point High School, liked the transformation theme.

"We should do something on the four seasons, to represent change and transformation," she said.

Salvador, who hopes to pursue a career teaching art to children, said the program has been more than she expected.

"It actually helps you," she said. "I'm shy, but it motivates me to speak up, which I'm going to need if I want to be in education."

Salvador said she was familiar with the wall but was surprised to see how much of it the group will have to cover. "When we went to see it, I was thinking, 'What have we gotten ourselves into?' "

Some of the youths said they initially were pessimistic about the outcome, thinking that gang members would just tag over their work. But Morning tried to be encouraging.

"I'm hopeful that it's going to speak volumes, so much so that no one will want to tag over it," she said.

Once the participants have come up with possible mural designs, they plan to present them to the community for feedback. In the meantime, the program is searching for additional participants to help with the actual painting.

A grant has provided financial support so far, and Morning said she hopes to secure additional funding from local businesses to provide supplies and sponsorships for more participants who could benefit from the arts training and positive experience.

"Young people in Maryland in general are getting inundated with gang culture and life problems," Morning said. "Some are parents. A lot are dealing with racism and immigration. Being a young person in America right now means you're at risk."

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