Madeline Pieschel

Behind the scenes at ArtWorks for Milwaukee

The local nonprofit is designed to help high school students learn real-world vocational skills in a creative, self-reflective environment.

By - Apr 18th, 2013 04:00 am
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Artworks intern making progress on the project

As Gallery Night approaches, ArtWorks for Milwaukee interns eagerly await the unveiling of the project they’ve been diligently working on for the past eight weeks. At one of their last meetings, the room was filled with chatter, laughter and Michael Jackson beats, as paintbrushes glided back and forth across a beautiful, nearly finished mural.

Artworks for Milwaukee workspace studio at Bucketworks on National

Artworks for Milwaukee studio work space at Bucketworks on National. All photos courtesy the author.

ArtWorks for Milwaukee is a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization founded in 2001 to help teens struggling with graduation or post-high school success. These “interns” are actually Milwaukee-area high school students who face barriers to employment, either because of a disability, underperformance in school, or other obstacles. ArtWorks exposes them to realistic workplace settings and environments, and teaches valuable life lessons and skills, through various applications of art and art techniques.

But what makes Artworks a particularly unique nonprofit is that the program treats its interns as real employees. Students receive individual career coaching, earn paychecks with hourly wages, and even have the opportunity to get a wage-raise based off of performance evaluations and participation, just like they would in a real-world job. But also like a real-world job, they must qualify for the internship, get through an interview, attend all sessions over the eight-week long program, fill out time sheets, meet their deadlines and learn to be effective team players. ArtWorks is assisted in this by various neighborhood groups and organizations, including Manpower Group, Safe and Sound Inc., and MSP Partnership for the Arts.

ArtWorks for Milwaukee intern, Yue Pheng Vang, contributing to the mural

ArtWorks for Milwaukee intern, Yue Pheng Vang, contributing to the mural

Artworks for Milwaukee executive director, Terry Murphy, said interns are usually timid at the beginning, especially those who have little or no art background. “They oftentimes feel insecure and vulnerable coming into an art project with seven other unfamiliar interns. But by the end of the eight weeks they truly seem to come out of their shell, create lasting relationships, and walk away with a newfound confidence.”

After they graduate from the ArtWorks program, Murphy said, they are tracked and monitored to find out whether the program made a noticeable impact on their lives, and previous data suggests most interns have had a positive improvement in their careers and personal lives. This is Murphy’s favorite part of the program; she finds great fulfillment in watching the interns blossom into more confident, positive individuals.

So how does art play a vital role in all of this? “Art reaches students who are hard to reach, and oftentimes closed off,” Murphy said. “It engages the interns and allows them to let down their guards when they’re most vulnerable.”

The ArtWorks projects enable the interns to make self-realizations about their own potential, skill, and talent that they might have otherwise looked past, or not have recognized at all. A local, “lead artist” facilitates each collaborative project, giving each intern the assistance they need but allowing individuals to contribute their own ideas to the final product. Each intern must learn to master new art techniques in a short period of time, and are held accountable for their contribution. At the end of the program, ArtWorks holds a gallery opening for interns to present their finished work to the public. Past projects have ranged from mosaics and murals to printmaking and digital design.

A glimpse of the interns' mural to be presented on Gallery Night

A glimpse of the interns’ mural to be presented on Gallery Night

This spring’s program involves a collaborative mixed-media mural titled “I See You.”  The project’s inspiration and theme was “fears and dreams.” Tia Richardson, lead artist for the spring program, said the idea came from a brainstorming session early on. “The idea came from one session when we explored in depth a phrase from the poem ‘Our Deepest Fears’ by Marianne Williamson — ‘It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.'”

The ArtWorks project process may seem great by the end, but there’s lots of baby steps in between. Each project begins with talking circles, 30 minutes to an hour, where the lead artist checks in with interns and ask questions to see what is on their hearts and minds. The talking circle gives each intern a chance to be heard without being interrupted, and gives everyone an equal opportunity to speak.

The group participating in one of their  'talking circles'

Lead artist, Tia Richardson, leading discussion in one of the groups ‘talking circles’

“The talking circle engages the interns in listening to one another, in co-creating a space where everyone feels respected and safe, and opening up in ways not otherwise possible,” Richardson said. She said the circle even inspired this year’s project idea. In one session, after dissecting “Our Deepest Fears,” the interns naturally and organically began discussing their own fears, and in another session a few days later, began discussing their hopes and dreams instead. “The images in the mural were created out of our conversations,” Richardson said.

As I watched the interns finish their mural, I could see how it served as a true reflection of each. Looking at the mural as a whole, all the fears, hopes and dreams blend together, but studying it, the interns’ individual stories begin to unravel, shedding an intimate light on their individual self and hinting at the endless possibilities that lie within each intern.

Make sure to stop by Bucketworks from 5:00-9:00 pm on Friday, April 19, located on 5th and National, to meet and learn more about the interns, and most importantly to see this inspiring piece of art that they created. For more information about ArtWorks, visit their website.

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