In the dim golden glow of a darkroom, a group of teenagers and young adults gathered around Alexandra Silverthorne as she placed a few objects on a sheet of black paper. They watched curiously while their instructor briefly exposed the sheet to a narrow beam of light before dipping it in a basin of chemicals.
In seconds, the shape of each object appeared in white on the paper, drawing “oohs” and “aahs” from the students.
They were making photograms, a type of camera-less photography created on light-sensitive paper.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was looking at a ghost,” Melvin West, 24, said as he searched for items to produce his own photogram.
West is one of 19 students in the Arts Leadership Program, a set of summer classes designed to provide young people in the District with art education.
Since the end of June, the students, ages 14 to 24, have taken daily classes at the University of the District of Columbia, where they receive formal art training, primarily in painting. They are also instructed in financial literacy and intellectual-property rights so they can effectively sell and protect their work.
Their work from the six-week program is expected to coalesce into a massive mural that they will display in their own art show at the Howard Theatre on Saturday. The effort is in its first year, but organizers hope it will be held again next summer and maybe even expand.
On tables stained by blotches of paint, the students learn from professors and professionals the tips and techniques for art mediums. They come from different walks of life and hail from each of the District’s wards. Many had applied after being recruited through their schools and the District’s Department of Employment Services.
“For them to have the opportunity to actually present their artwork in a youth art showcase is going to be phenomenal,” said John Chisholm, executive director of the program.
Chisholm, 47, who has a day job at a D.C.-based consulting firm, created the program as an add-on to his fledgling nonprofit, PAINTS Institute.
The organization seeks to help artists gain an understanding of the business side of art and is funded through public entities such as UDC and private donations, as well as through Chisholm’s personal investments.
Chisholm said he does not know much about art himself. His desire to bring art training to young people started when he attended a concert last year and was mesmerized by the work of an artist who created a painting during the performance.
“From the moment the music started to the time he finished onstage, I had never seen a masterpiece like that,” Chisholm said. “He went from scratch.”
He was so enthralled by the artist that he had to meet him, but Chisholm was disappointed to see that the painter’s name was not attached to his work. Chisholm, who works for a firm that consults with businesses to establish efficient practices, saw a need to teach artists the skills necessary to sustain their careers.
He started PAINTS Institute and, soon after, the program to help young artists develop their talent while also sharpening their business skills. Many of the students come from low-income communities where art programs are not available, Chisholm said.
The students admire his approach.
“He introduced us to all types of stuff and all types of people,” West said. “I would’ve never gotten introduced to this stuff.”
Each day, Chisholm said, he is inspired by the young artists’ creations.
“Their eyelids are the apertures and lenses on a camera that they snap when they see [something],” Chisholm said. “It goes somewhere in the brain, comes out the shoulder. . . and that’s absolutely phenomenal to me, to watch that happen.”
The mural the students are creating, titled “The D.C. Ward Story Collection,” will combine the students’ individual paintings like puzzle pieces, each displaying significant features of the District’s wards.
On the first day, they were assigned a ward different from the one they live in to study. They have traveled to their respective neighborhoods and researched each for its historic and cultural richness.
Large black and white sketches of landmarks such as Nationals Park and Union Station decorate the walls of one of their classrooms, waiting to be used as references for paintings.
“I can’t wait to see what we do because it’s a group effort,” said Tra Johnson, a 20-year-old from Ward 6.
Johnson entered the program as a lifelong comic artist, with an interest in graphic novels. The program has been his first exposure to painting, which he appreciates, but he especially likes how he has learned the business side, as well.
“That’s one of the things that’s really important to me: being able to copyright my work and knowing that it’s mine and nobody can take it,” Johnson said. “Learning how to monetize and actually sell what I do. If I can make a living being an artist, I will.”
Chisholm would like the Arts Leadership Program to continue next year and possibly expand to Virginia and Maryland. He says the program has made an impact in the lives of the students, many of whom he said had never set foot on a college campus before. They do not have to pursue a college education, but he wants them to know the option is available to them.
“We’re creating and forging that pipeline,” he said.
Regardless of what they do beyond the program, the students are enjoying their summer learning about art with other young people from across the District.
“Every day I come, I learn something new,” West said.
Sanika Williams, a 17-year-old from Southeast Washington, appreciates how the program has acquainted her with the diversity of art. She loves traditional forms of art but also admires it in abstract paintings, body piercings and tattoos.
For her and the other participants, it is all about self-expression.
“You can have art be how you talk; it’s as simple as that,” she said. “It comes in different shapes and sizes.”