By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Art isn’t just about creating a masterpiece. Art is about creating a statement and sending a message. It can be symbolic and thought invoking and interpreted in different ways. In recent years, the therapeutic and healing powers of art have received more attention. Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) have begun utilizing the arts to invoke positivity in their community.
“Art gives students a voice and it showed them what’s possible,” said Kari Hanson, manager of TurnAround Arts.
TurnAround Arts began as an MPS initiative several years ago as a school reform program. Currently, it’s been introduced to four schools. Earlier this year, TurnAround partnered with the Black and Latino Male Achievement (BLMA) initiative and Art Start, a New York-based program that nurtures kids through creative workshops. Together they created a series of portraits featuring young, male, Black and Latino students.
Beginning in February, Art Start began working with the boys. They attended photo shoots, discussed their dreams and how they envisioned their futures. The end results were a portrait series featuring each student as their potential selves. Currently, the exhibition See Me Because: Art Start Portrait Project 2018 is on display at the Kenilworth East Gallery till Oct. 14.
According to BLMA Director LaNelle Ramey and planning assistant David Emmanuelle Castillo, the goal behind this project was to change the narrative of Black and brown boys in the media. The portraits showed the world how these young men want to be seen. Some want to be on stage, others want to work in the community, another envisions himself a hero like Spiderman.
“We have to tell a different story of our boys of color,” Ramey said.
Latrelle Johnson was one of the feature portraits. He stands at the center, with two people to either side of him—these people represent the homeless.
Johnson explained how often the homeless in Milwaukee get overlooked, but he makes an effort to see them. He’ll buy them a drink when he can to make sure they stay hydrated; however, he plans on doing more when he’s older.
“I don’t want to just help them, I want to get them back on their feet,” he said.
His friend and fellow portrait, Devonta Hymes, felt similarly about helping the community. In his portrait, Hymes is addressing a crowd. Behind him is a mural with the words Boy II King, the name of his future non-profit organization. Through this organization, he plans to target the youth of Milwaukee (and eventually the world) to show them that the world can be a different and better place.
“I don’t want to be president, but I want to change the world,” he said.
The beauty of each portrait was how they focused on the individual. The creative minds behind them took care to incorporate the details that made it personal.
In DJ Moore’s portrait, a hat sits on his desk. In bold letters, it says “DJ ART.” In the photo, Moore is portrayed as an artist in a studio.
“I feel like that’s me in a couple of years,” he said. “I want to be an artist.”
Although Moore didn’t know what to expect when he agreed to participate, he knew it was going to be interesting. Everybody gave off good vibes, he said. As an artist, it gave him the chance to connect with like-minded individuals.
He noted that unlike other organizations, BLMA gave him the tools and the steps instead of just the words.
Although it may take some of the young men a few years to make their dreams a reality, the impact of the portraits was immediate.
“I could do nothing but smile,” Hymes said.
Castillo noted that the psychological impact began during the photoshoots.
Johanna de los Santos, the Co-Executive Director of Art Start, said the key changing the narrative and by extension, the city, is the youth. People have formed ideas and imagery of who these young people are, she said, when in reality they are more than that.
Keep asking who they are, she said. Let them tell you how they want to be seen.
“We need to let our young people represent themselves,” she said.