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Turning Art Dreams Into Reality

St. Louis ArtWorks hosts teen artists for 6-week apprentice job-training program held at Ranken

Young artists work as apprentices in the “gallery space” at Ranken Technical College. The high school-aged students are part of a job-training program sponsored by St. Louis ArtWorks.
Photo by Dickson Beall (click for larger version)
July 13, 2011
Simple hand-lettered cardboard signs announce that this unexpected place is where art is for sale.

The "gallery space" is Ranken Technical College. Among lots of tools and welding equipment are sculptural works, park benches with wood-burned designs, colorful bike racks and steel furniture. Two-dimensional ink drawings and greeting cards are displayed on tables.

High school-aged youths cluster in the hallway with the excitement of a tournament basketball game. These are young artists, and their work is on display. Everyone is friendly, and viewers to this open house and sale of art are welcomed with smiles and a refreshing cordiality.

The young adults, ages 14 through 19, are working for six weeks as artist apprentices, under the tutelage of professional artists who teach in the St. Louis area. The program, in operation since 1995, is a job-training program in the arts that boasts 1,600 alumni, many of whom now have art careers.

Priscilla Block, executive director of St. Louis ArtWorks, oversees the program, which is a model of community collaboration. Groups of 15 or so young artists learn to work as a team in designing and completing art projects, while also building individual portfolios and developing their job skills. To boot, the students receive a paycheck for their work.

Art apprentice Paris Brown with her drawing of a super hero that became part of an educational activity comic book for third through fifth graders.
Photo by Dickson Beall (click for larger version)
The space where most of the artwork is created, at Centene Center for Arts and Education in Grand Center, consists of spacious light-filled studios on several floors. The aspiring artists work in settings that resemble professional graphics studios, complete with computers, printing presses and drawing tables.

About 15 professional artists work with 90 or so students, and the workday is filled with activities not unlike those of a Hollywood animation studio. The setting is abuzz with the students' energy and wide-eyed enjoyment of their activities.

Gathered around tables, the students plan out the storyboard for a comic book — a super-hero activity book designed for third through fifth graders. After coming up with activities to encourage healthy eating habits and good nutrition for young children, the students draw related cartoons in pencil and then ink in their drawings. The simple Manga-like cartoon figures, complete with villain and heroes to fight the bad guy, are printed into books for distribution to area schools.

Other artist apprentices design BoomerRacks, sculptural bike racks that are constructed from recycled bikes donated to the organization. These bike racks are seen around the city at various corporations, restaurants and the Regional Arts Commission. The students not only learn social skills and how to work with clients who commission these works, but also how to make models and create posters for their clients.

The bike rack sculptures might have flower tops or musical instruments that are welded at Ranken and then sandblasted, powder coated and painted bright colors by the apprentices.

Bike parts also are recycled for the students to make clocks, coat racks, chandeliers, bar stools, key chains, jewelry and wall pieces.

Apprentices working in graphic arts create greeting cards, logos and signs. In a project structured so they might experience religious diversity, the apprentices create packets of greeting cards designed in appreciation of different spiritual backgrounds — Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. As preparation, students visited a mosque, a synagogue and a Hindu temple, as well as the Saint Louis Art Museum.

St. Louis ArtWorks' method is reminiscent of the historic ways art has been taught in the past. Apprentices work with artists, learning by the atelier or workshop method, just as the guilds taught gold-work and stonemasonry.

Student teams at St. Louis ArtWorks share a similar approach as surrealists Andre' Breton, Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miro, in working as a group and making playful works of art into games where each individual contributes to the overall drawing or collage.

Likewise, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) comes to mind. In the era of the New Deal, the WPA provided jobs to do public works in the arts, media and literacy projects.

St. Louis ArtWorks develops not only marketable skills in the arts, but also boosts leadership and other life skills while focusing upon meaningful topics such as health, nutrition and social responsibility.

St. Louis ArtWorks partners with other community arts organizations in developing and teaching artistic disciplines. It joins with government, foundation, corporate and individual sponsors to commission works of art designed and completed by apprentices. YouthBridge, the Regional Arts Commission, the Missouri Arts Council and the Arts and Education Council are among the supporters and collaborators.

Teaching partners have included Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, St. Louis Community College at Meramec and Washington University at St. Louis.

Turning artistic dreams into practical reality is one of the big goals at St. Louis ArtWorks. The organization serves well, both the individuals whose young lives are changed and the entire St. Louis community. The final sale of student artwork on July 21 gives all an opportunity to support the youthful artists, as well as a commendable program.

St. Louis ArtWorks Summer Program Final Sale: July 21, 10-2 p.m., Ranken Technical College, 1313 N. Newstead. For more details, visit StlArtWorks.org.

Dickson Beall videos on Arts and Culture are seen at www.StLouisan.com.

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