If you’ve ever walked along Ashby Street between Shattuck and Telegraph in Berkeley, you might have noticed the colorfully tiled bollards lining the street. Busy commuters who travel Ashby everyday can easily overlook the mosaics on these cement posts, but those who do are missing out on a powerful artistic display of the thoughts, histories, emotions, and ambitions of Berkeley’s homeless and “at-risk” youth.
The tiled bollards on Ashby are just one of the many community art projects created by Youth Spirit Artworks, an interfaith job-training arts program co-founded by Sally Hindman. Hindman – who’s also responsible for the Telegraph Avenue drop-in center for homeless youth and Street Spirit, the Bay Area’s homeless newspaper – created the organization in 2007 in order to provide training for young people in need.
According to the program’s website, Youth Spirit Artworks began “as a response to the enormous employment challenges of older homeless and low-income youth.”
Homeless youth can have a very difficult time finding employment and getting an education. As the National Coalition for the Homeless points out, many youth “leave home after years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member, and parental neglect.” Once they’re on the streets, they face harsh challenges:
Because of their age, homeless youth have few legal means by which they can earn enough money to meet basic needs… Furthermore, homeless youth face difficulties attending school because of legal guardianship requirements, residency requirements, improper records, and lack of transportation. As a result, homeless youth face severe challenges in obtaining an education and supporting themselves emotionally and financially.
Nearly 10,000 young people were living on Bay Area streets in 2012. Currently, Youth Spirit Artworks is addressing these challenges by providing homeless and low-income youth training in art and entrepreneurship. In this training program, young adults partner with professional artists to create commercial art – tote bags, coffee mugs, and elaborately decorated chairs, which they sell at their retail store on Alcatraz Avenue. They also create community art, including murals that can be found throughout Berkeley and the beautifully tiled bollards on Ashby. Youth Spirit Artworks also provides income for students, giving them a portion of their retail sales in addition to monthly or hourly stipends.
Many of the youth participants expressed excitement about their art endeavors but a sense of frustration with the “homeless” and “at-risk” labels applied to them.
“We’re all technically low income and at-risk youth,” said Elijah Mount-Finette, a twenty-two-year-old artist with the program. But that doesn’t mean the participants identify with those terms.
“For me personally I’ve always had a problem with titles,” said Tiphereth Banks, a nineteen-year-old Youth Spirit Artworks member. “I’ve had my share of at-risk situations… [but] I just want them to see me for my art, not see me as somebody who’s suffering.”
Toryanna Finley, a seventeen-year-old art student, added, “I don’t like that label because I don’t fall into those categories. Sometimes I feel like even if people do fall into those categories, they don’t like being labeled as ‘at risk’ or ‘homeless’ because they might not feel like they’re homeless… But that is the category. We have to name it.”
Like Shakespeare’s Juliet – the thirteen-year-old who famously asked what’s in a name? – and like many other teenagers their age, Mount-Finette, Finley, and Banks are concerned with notions of individuality and identity – issues of naming. They don’t want to be bound by labels. In fact, they want to reinvent the labels. They want to name themselves and not be named by anyone else.
I experienced them as an impressive bunch: they are passionate, educated, ambitious, and mature, with a strong commitment to community service. Each has ambitious goals for the future. Banks, who heard about Youth Spirit Artworks when she saw a flier at her high school, has dreams of starting her own art school; Finley, who heard about the program through Banks, now has plans to go into healthcare. Mount-Finette, who got involved in Youth Spirit Artworks through Berkeley Youth Alternatives, another job training program, wants to go to business school and become an entrepreneur. All three of them expressed a desire to give back to the community through some form of community service.
The students also spoke eloquently about the effects the program has had on their lives. For Mount-Finette, the program brought self-confidence and leadership skills. “I never would have found the courage to assert myself and become a leader,” he said. “I came out of a year of total hell… [but] because of this [experience], I’ve decided that I want to go to business school. When you can find someone’s niche, it can do wonders for them.”
For Banks, the strength she found in the program was simply through the process of making art. “It taught me to cherish a pencil,” she said. “They showed me the significance of a pencil and all the things you could do with it. It made me feel like I was complete.”
The youth expressed excitement about the experience of actually selling their art – of sending it out to mingle with the other objects of the world. Banks didn’t have to wait very long to feel this exhilaration; she was only in the program for two days when someone bought one of her designs: “[On] my first day… the first thing I did was sit down with a junior artist and she told me to pick a chair… I made it light blue and it had yellow stars all over it. It got sold the next day and that made me happy.”
Mount-Finette shared a similar story: “It felt really good when someone bought my chair. I knew it was a really simple blue chair with little fish on it. And it went into a second grade classroom. I just love that it’s in a classroom.”
For the students at Youth Spirit Artworks, selling their art isn’t just about making money or learning “skills” – it’s also about self confidence, pride in one’s work, and a sense of achievement. And it’s also about healing.
All three students I interviewed noted the restorative effect art has had on them. In fact, Banks compared her sketchbook to a diary: “It heals me… My sketchbook is like my diary… When I’m drawing pictures, it’s like I’m drawing my feelings and my thoughts out on a piece of paper.”
Art’s healing potential fulfills an important part of Youth Spirit Artworks’ mission, which is to harness the transformative power of art. According to Mount-Finette, Finley, and Banks, art is indeed transformative, as it has the capacity to heal the psyche and soul of the artist. “I don’t think that many other things can take me where art can take me,” said Banks. “If I was drawing in my sketchbook right now I wouldn’t be here. I’d seriously be somewhere else. You ever see that show Heroes?” She was speaking of the character Isaac Mendez from the TV show Heroes, who transforms as he paints, his eyes aglow in a trance-like state as his canvasses reveal the future. “He’s nice. He’s saucy,” she said. “He reminds me of myself because of his eyes. That’s how I feel when I’m painting and when I’m drawing.”
Indeed, art appears to take the youth who participate in this program “somewhere else”; it takes them, like Isaac Mendez, into their futures, full speed ahead. It is both transformative and spiritual – for what are muses if not the inhabitation of divine spirit?
Finley put it best, explaining the release that art offers her. “If you’re sad you can do art, if you’re happy you can do art, if you’re angry you can do art,” she told me. “And you can never go wrong with art. No matter what you do to it, it’s never wrong. It’s always positive. It’s always right. And nobody can take that away from you because it’s what you created.”
To see more of Youth Spirit Artworks’ art visit Tikkun Daily Art Gallery and Youth Spirit Artworks’ website, or visit their retail store at 1769 Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley. If you want to donate to Youth Spirit Artworks, or know a student who would like to participate in the program, click on the“get involved” tab on their website.
Annie Pentilla has an MFA and BA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. She co-edits Highway 101 Press (highway101press.com) and interns at Tikkun. Her work has appeared in Improv 2009: Anthology of Colorado Poets and Read This.