By Laura Smith/ Go Triad
On a sunny Friday afternoon, nine-year-old Nayleny Banda paints a pink flower petal on a white sheet of paper in an art studio at the Center for Visual Artists (CVA). For Banda, an immigrant from Mexico and current resident of Greensboro, painting is not just a hobby, it’s a “fun way to express your feelings,” she says.
Banda is one of approximately 8 to 10 children (ages 9-15) who participates in Los Artistas, a once-a-week art program for Spanish speaking middle and high school students at the CVA in downtown Greensboro. The program focuses on exploring their history and place in the modern world through journaling, painting, drawing and more. The students gain knowledge about their culture and learn how to express themselves in a safe haven where they can feel comfortable being themselves.
“The kids have something positive to put their energy into,” said Sarah Dougherty, program instructor. “It’s a place to feel safe and explore their identity instead of feeling like they have to be silent.”
A safe space to create
Los Artistas was created by Dougherty, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and the daughter of a Bolivian mother. While studying Latin American studies at Chapel Hill, Dougherty completed an independent study on immigrant art programs. She also spent time in Mexico studying art education and learning about folk art techniques. With the help of grant funding, she began Los Artistas in 2004 at the ArtsCenter in Chapel Hill as part of the study.
“I created a curriculum that would introduce students to traditional fine arts and pre-Columbian arts,” she said. “It gives them the whole spectrum of what I know about art-making; that includes representational and abstract (art) and also what is going on with Chicano and Latina arts.”
There were three goals Dougherty set out to achieve in the program: raising the students’ self-esteem, teaching them visual arts techniques and engaging them in public community arts.
Four years later, Dougherty took that same model and brought it to Greensboro in 2008.
The Center for Visual Artists (CVA) has housed the free youth program since its inception in Greensboro last year. The CVA, a comprehensive visual arts center that provides education, exhibition and outreach opportunities, received grant funding through the Fund for Democratic Communities last year to host the program.
“Part of the focus of the class (Los Artistas) is to provide the community with an opportunity to not only express and tell their stories, but also to ask a group to decide what issues and what art form interest them,” said Derrick Sides, executive director of CVA.
It also provides the students with a safe place to create.
“The thought behind it is if they have a safe place to express themselves and be creative and explore identity and their family history in a positive way, they’ll be less likely to fall into depression, anxiety, gangs or drugs or any of the normal things that affect teenagers when they don’t have a positive, healthy outlet,” Dougherty said.
“We like to keep it open because for whatever reason they’re coming, it’s something positive for them to do, and it’s a community they’re building.”
Art in the community
The students in Los Artistas are mainly first generation Latinos. The class meets every Friday night during the school year, and is currently made up of students from Ecuador, Mexico and Peru.
“The focus is on Latino students,” Dougherty said. “Some of them prefer English, some of them prefer Spanish; it really depends on how long they’ve been here. We’re not really strict about that. It’s really anybody who wants to come, even if they’re not Hispanic.
“The focus is really on being bi-cultural: Your parents are from one country, and you live in another country.”
In February, Los Artistas participants painted a mural on a wall at the Avalon Trace Apartments in Greensboro to celebrate the opening of its Community Development Center. The center partners with the African Services Coalition and the Glen Haven Development Center (with the Center for New North Carolinians at UNCG) for immigrant families. The apartment complex houses several dozen resettled African refugee families as well as some families from other areas of the world. The mural displayed different types of trees from various countries with the word “welcome” written in a variety of languages. Together with the residents of Avalon, the Los Artistas students created the mural to welcome the new refugees joining Avalon.
Throughout July and August, members of Los Artistas have been volunteering to paint its second mural, representing Greensboro’s social history. It is being painted on an indoor, brick wall about 10 feet tall at the HIVE, a not-for-profit community center in Greensboro’s Glenwood neighborhood.
“I’m a little nervous,” said Los Artistas member Joel Freeman, 12, of Greensboro, “because everybody’s going to look at it.”
Banda, on the other hand, is less concerned.
“It will show that not only adults can do art, but so can kids,” she said.
It’s projects like this one that help boost the student’s confidence.
“This is a huge moment for them &ellipses; and they’re going to feel like they just really own this project and really contribute something to Greensboro’s history,” Dougherty said.
Her predecessor, Juan Miranda, a rising sophomore at UNCG, designed the sketch and has been guiding the students on the actual painting, one to two times a week.
The mural will display a timeline of the social history of Greensboro from the Native American era to the colonial era and the civil rights movement to the new wave of immigrants settling in Greensboro.
To collect research for the timeline, the kids visited the Greensboro Historical Museum to learn more about the history of the city.
“It provides an outside glimpse at Greensboro’s history, sort of their perception on it,” Sides said. “Through that, it will help the community sort of see how it’s viewed and how it’s being embraced by people who continue to come here as our community continues to expand.
“The mural project comes in as a possibility to not only do something beneficial for the community that would create awareness of the program, but also will hopefully allow the community to embrace the program and support it so that it can really reach its fullest impact.”
Dougherty will be moving to California in the fall to pursue an MFA in painting at the University of California at Los Angeles. Replacing her will be Miranda, who is currently training under Dougherty to become the instructor for the program in the fall.
Miranda, a native of Ecuador, says he understands what some of these kids are going through in terms of being a Latin immigrant living in the United States. At age 9, Miranda and his family moved from Ecuador to Miami in 2000. A year later, they moved to Charlotte where his father had gotten a job.
“It was a little bit hard, he said. “I didn’t speak much English.
“I know exactly what it feels like to go to a different place when you are a minority. You think the way you do things is not right. But you are who you are, you have your values and your cultures. It’s OK to be yourself; you shouldn’t be ashamed. That’s why we have this (program).”
As an art major, he also understands what art can bring to the kids’ lives.
“Art is very important,” he said. “It’s a way to communicate. You can learn a lot from art; it’s so diverse. It’s got a common language, and I think it’s a good way to get people together and learn from each other.”
He credits the Los Artistas program for allowing the kids to create that art.
“They practice their technique and in that sense, they become better,” he said. “I think experience and practice is one of the benefits. Also, it’s good because it gives them something else to do, it keeps them out of trouble. It’s just fun for them.”
“I’ve seen their confidence go way up after they participate,” Dougherty said. “They’re used to maybe feeling like outsiders or just having regular feelings of insecurity being a teenager. There is definitely confidence of expressing how they feel and not being ashamed of their accent or parents’ history.”