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Nonprofit Art School Helps Youth Thrive in Skid Row, Los Angeles

Students paint glaze on handmade pieces in one of Inner-City Arts' two ceramics studios. “For many of them, it’s their first time learning about ceramics, touching clay and expressing themselves in a three dimensional form. It’s great to see their amazement of the possibilities that clay gives them,” said artist-teacher Lizbeth Navarro. | Photos by Sean Myers

Eight pottery wheels line a glass window. Architect Michael Maltzan sought student input when his firm designed Inner-City Arts' second ceramic studio. Children said they wanted a jungle, so Maltzan incorporated large windows facing an outdoor garden.

Students also asked architect Michael Maltzan for a volcano, so his firm designed a dramatic skylight with bright orange walls that casts an orange hue throughout the space.

Students watch a glazing demonstration by a ceramics artist-teacher. “At the beginning of the session, some of them are hesitant, but by mid-session, all of them see themselves as artists,” said Lizbeth Navarro, a ceramics teacher-artist.

Navarro said she typically gives a brief tutorial at the beginning of her class and then lets students experiment for the remainder of the session. “At the end of the class I’m always amazed with what they come up with after only a few minutes of instruction. They’re always really curious to experiment on their own and do their own thing,” she said.

Aprons line a wall of Inner-City Arts' original ceramics studio. Artist-teacher Lizbeth Navarro said the equipment and instruction available to young students mirrors that of some college courses. “They’re really getting a wide range of techniques and materials that they get to experience,” she said.

A student sings during a lunchtime open mic inside of the original studio space at Inner-City Arts. The daily event encourages children to share their creativity with classmates. “As soon as you step outside of judgement, you are closer to the reality of life itself. We become more open, we become capable of perceiving what is really going on,” said co-founder Bob Bates.

Students play a card game and eat snacks as their classmates perform songs at the daily open mic.

A student walks along a path toward a collaborative art piece in one of several outdoor spaces at Inner-City Arts. “The environment itself at Inner-City Arts is a place of total and complete safety. It’s not a place of competition, a place where people are striving to be on the cutting edge, although that happens continuously as we work in the creative arts, but the environment allows students to explore, to make mistakes, to be accepted in their failures and in their strengths and in their growth,” said co-founder Bob Bates.

A student finishes decorations on her handmade pinball machine. “There are so few points in a child’s day when they truly get to make choices. Being able to make a choice about your own creation and then being able to talk about that choice and being received in a positive space ... hopefully that can contribute to a storehouse of positive emotional experiences for a child,” said Jennifer Carroll.

A student finishes a digital piece as an artist-teacher oversees his work. “Part of our teachers' job is to bring people who may not identify as artists into that experience so that they can witness their own thoughts and feelings,” said Associate Director of Education Jennifer Carroll.

Students play drums as a group inside a music studio at Inner-City Arts. “So much of what the arts do is puts us in the present moment. It allows us to slow down time and really be engaged in the flow of our work, ideally. The arts really do allow for a different kind of presence, whether you’re watching or engaging and participating in them,” said Jennifer Carroll, associate director of education.

Students arrange themselves in a line before executing dance moves for a self-made music video.

Students gather around a computer to review a project they created during class in the digital lab. “The arts reach deep into the spirit and soul of the human being and enable them to really grow, develop and be themselves,” said Bob Bates, the organization's artistic director and co-founder.

Text and Photos by Sean Myers

LOS ANGELES — Nestled among nondescript warehouses and infamous streets, Inner-City Arts in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row is an oasis for artistic growth and self-exploration that serves more than 8,000 students each year. (Click on photo gallery, above.)

The school provides free classes each day for students in grades K-8 education through a partnership with the L.A. Unified School District and other charter schools. The nonprofit organization also offers after-school and weekend programs for high school students, as well as summer programs for children of all ages. The out-of-school time classes typically have a fee, but Vy Pham, associate director of communications, said via email that it is “waived for most all of our students.”

LA_bureau_logo2-01-336x336“We’ve observed the power of the arts to transform lives, to create a state of being in which people can grow and develop, in which they can solve problems and overcome obstacles,” said Bob Bates, artistic director and cofounder of Inner-City Arts.

Along with businessman Irwin Jaeger, Bates created the school in 1989. “About 35 years ago I was meditating in my studio in downtown Los Angeles, and in the silence of the meditation, I heard a man’s voice say, ‘Get an art space for kids,’” Bates said.

A period of self-reflection had led him to extensive meditation.Teaching art renewed his sense of purpose and fueled a personal transformation, Bates said.

“As these things unfolded, art became a doorway into real wellness for me,” he said. And he had a vision to create an art space for kids.

In the decades since, Inner-City Arts has grown from a converted auto body shop to a thriving campus that inhabits an acre plot. Bates estimates the organization has impacted 200,000 children.

At the center of its success is a teaching philosophy that promotes wellness by empowering students to unleash creativity without fear of judgement or rigid requirements.

“Creativity is the process of bringing something into being that wasn’t there before. That whole process inherently has challenges, moments of desperation, choices that need to be made and results. Any person who truly puts themselves in that process experiences pride, a sense of possibility and the potential of their own agency,” said Jennifer Carroll, Inner-City Arts’ associate director of education.

Carroll said she promotes wellness for her 43-person staff by nurturing their growth as both artists and educators. She believes inspired faculty are more likely to positively affect students.

“You want the adults who work with your kids to be well,” she said.

The school refers to its faculty as “artist-teachers” because educators typically work as professional artists alongside their role at Inner-City Arts. Each one creates their own curriculum that incorporates the organization’s core values.

For Lizbeth Navarro, a ceramics artist-teacher, it’s a dream job. She wasn’t exposed to clay until she reached college, so she values the access to her beloved art form that Inner-City Arts provides for children.

Navarro said: “Having the opportunity to share it with students at a younger age so that they get that exposure way before I did, so they have those possibilities and ways of expressing themselves way earlier … we’re opening their world to infinite possibilities.”

See more at Youth Today

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