A short time-lapse video of the beginning of the night--my camera died before things really got going.
Art With Purpose
"Danny, we only need to sell one painting each tonight and we'll be professional artists."
And at the ripe old ages of thirteen and fourteen, no less.
The drive from the West Colfax neighborhood to Denver's Art District on Santa Fe was a mix of nervous excitement, feigned calm, and dubstep-by-request. Chelby's comment spoke for her and Danny as we parked near the gallery they would soon be showing at.
Danny and Chelby are two students who led my Urban Art class for the first six months of 2013--they were instrumental throughout the ~3000 square foot mural project from concept design through completion. Both have dreams to be professional artists. Last night--February 7, 2014--was their first art show, and where better than the premier art event in the heart of Denver's art district: First Friday Art Walk on Santa Fe.
My first real mentor and serious inspiration gave me endless freedom to learn about and develop myself through the arts--jazz, specifically--opened up many doors for me, and gave me opportunities that are all too rare for young people. This was easy to take for granted until I became a teacher in a world of education that sees the arts as "enriching" at best, but not necessary. When we approach the arts in this way, we negate the identities and futures of countless children...but that's a conversation for another time.
I can, and have, traced all of my successes back to what I learned from the arts starting back in 7th grade. Especially the successes that are seemingly unrelated to the arts. So I feel a strong need to give this opportunity to younger people as it was given to me.
An Exciting Evening
After some minimal coaching from me, Danny and Chelby got to work setting up their section of the gallery next to artists who were all three or four times their age.
After a certain number of life-changing experiences, you begin to recognize them in others as they happen; this was one of those evenings. The two young artists started the evening shy and apprehensive. But by the end of the evening they were stepping far out of their comfort zones and into new life experiences: both sold their first piece of art, they were commissioned for two unrelated mural projects, and they made some very impressive connections and deals with adult professionals.
On top of all this, the gallery owner asked them back for the next show. Speaking of which, I should mention that the gallery (858 Santa Fe) was packed with the most amazing people and vibed the hardest out of any gallery on Santa Fe--as reported by several people who walked the entire strip.
But that's not the life-changing part. Through my observations and conversations I had with the two of them, it became clear that they had learned something that only experience can teach:
"There are people who value what I'm good at and want to invest their time, energy, and money in me, as a person, and my work."
We discussed the fact that when someone commissions a piece of art, that person is investing in the artist as a person--the piece of art they are buying doesn't exist until later, when the artist makes it.
There is a pervasive belief among young street artists that if you tag your name with markers or stickers around the city, in the right places, you will "get noticed." In Colorado, sentences for graffiti range from $250-$750,000 and 3 months to 12 years in prison. But the myth of "getting noticed" persists because young street artists generally don't see a real avenue to become professional. This myth was broken for the kids last night.
There's little that is more gratifying than being validated through your own work, that most expresses who you are, and by strangers who have no obligation to do so. Having experienced this myself at a young age, I can say that watching two young people experience the same is an incredible thing to watch.
The future is very bright for Danny and Chelby, and I'm excited for them.
Regarding this approach to education: this art education project was the first real pilot of a model of education as experience that I and others have been developing. I am currently working on the next iteration of this approach with a computer engineering class I designed and am teaching now. Look for exciting posts about this in months to come...or let's get drinks and talk about it.