I hear it all the time. “What can we do to get our inner city youth hands on training that will ultimately give them the skills and the confidence they need to enter the workforce?” It’s a great question, and a tough one to answer. Over at the Essex Street Arts Center, Executive Director Simon Griffis and Director Mark Griffis have come up with a plan that works hard to get kids around the age of thirteen years of age off of the street and into art studios. It’s more than that though. These young people aren’t only learning how to design, create and weld… they are learning what it takes to tackle creative problem solving.
I spoke to Simon Griffis about the unusual technique and he shared with me the ins and outs of the program – a program that kids attend on their own time with nobody telling them that they even have to show up. It all starts at The Boys and Girls Club – that’s where the young people first learn about the program. Those interested arrive to the Essex Street Arts Center every Monday at 6pm for a one hour session of creative problem solving that takes place around a conference table (or boardroom).
“They actually sit there for an hour before they can get into the studio,” Simon told me. “The studio is the carrot. Before they get the carrot they must learn about social skills and leadership skills… that’s after they spend an entire day at school. They sit and listen with interest and participate in discussions. Nobody makes them come here… they just arrive for two hours. The first hour of education is followed with another hour of hands-on work in the studio.”
There are a series of phases that the students must go through. These phases start with each of the students producing a finished piece that will be shown locally at a public venue. From there that piece might go on to show at a regional venue. There have even been instances of works making it to national showings. Then there are the works that can be seen stationed outside of urban schools – how’s that for promoting public art? At this point, the entire team is working on a joint project that will be installed at the Griffis Sculpture Park. It’s wild to think that the students will have an arena to showcase their art alongside the best of the best. Then, after all of the torches have been put aside, and the artwork has been installed, it’s time to get down to business. That’s when the instructors at the studio get to work on helping the students build their portfolios, complete with images and recommendations.
In the future, the Essex Street Arts Center hopes to incorporate a variety of different art mediums into the program. There is no reason that these types of boardroom and studio successes should be limited to just metal arts. After all, there is so much more than art classes being offered. Each of the students comes away with a sense of accomplishment that is tangible. The spirit of teamwork will transcend to other aspects of life and will ultimately help to stabilize each student’s future. This is not just another after school arts class… this is the real deal.