by Marion Simon Garmel
“Art,” she said. “There is something in art that cracks that hard shell in a way that a lot of other things are not able to do.” Teresa Vazquez speaking. She is the warm, energetic community programs manager at the Indianapolis Art Center (IAC) in Broad Ripple, and coordinator of ArtReach.
Turning 27 this fall, ArtReach is a program in which the IAC contracts with schools and community centers to provide high-quality, year-round, community-based art education to children ages 5 to 18 living in underserved areas of the city. It’s a free afterschool and summer studio art program that serves approximately 1,000 youths at 26 sites annually.
In Midtown, the two locations are Coburn Place, a safe haven for victims of domestic abuse and their children, and the Indiana Youth Group (IYG), 3733 N. Meridian, a gathering place for LGBTQ youths. The young people served may come from all over the city but for the time they are in Midtown they get the benefit of the ArtReach program. And, says IYG executive director Chris Paulsen, “Many are very artistic, and some come to the center just to take part in the ArtReach program. The youths like doing art projects and the Art Center has experts that can facilitate art programming,” she said. “It means that IYG doesn’t have to re-create programs that already exist.”
It’s important to note that this is not just a “pick up your pen and make a statement” kind of instruction. This is an extensive program that includes four platforms: art making, art history, aesthetic discussion, and critical thinking. “Even if the students don’t become artists,” says Vazquez, “they gain valuable self-confidence and self-expression along the way.
“It’s a way to convey a complete education in art,” she added. “It’s not just art making. It also is looking and learning how to look for excellence. Because that, whether you are an artist or not, is a valuable tool: to be able to look carefully and understand how different elements work together to convey messages and deliver content.”
TEACHING VISUAL LITERACY
Vazquez was a teacher in the ArtReach program before she became its coordinator. She had coordinated a similar program for the Chicago Children’s Museum. An artist and educator, she exudes confidence in the ability of art to enhance all lives. “We use high quality materials, the same as professionals,” Vazquez said. “We employ working Indiana artists, which gives them a source of income in addition to teaching experience. We talk about Indiana artists, and lesser-known, non-obvious artists. Artists of color. LGBTQ people. Artists with disabilities,” she said.
“Arts in general give children a way to communicate that is not accessible to them through words,” Vazquez said. “We are decoding mysteries, teaching visual literacy. You have light and shadow. You have balance. You see how color enhances moods. Once you understand seeing, you can delve into the content.”
Shawnta Beverly, the mission impact director for Coburn Place, appreciates that aspect of the program because, she says, she is a visual learner herself. “They always use visuals to make the kids understand,” she said. “By making them create their own artworks, their self-confidence is enhanced. Some of our students have been homeless for many years. Their self-esteem is very low. They gain confidence in themselves and their ability to accomplish what they want to do.”
Beverly tells the story of one former student who suffered from autism and couldn’t sit still or focus “because of her disability.” She lived at Coburn Place for two years, and about halfway through her stay, she calmed down and began to focus. She graduated from the program as “student of the year.”
A 20-year employee of the live-in shelter, Beverly came to Coburn Place from the Julian Center, where she started working when she was 14. “I enjoy helping people. It is great to see people become self-sufficient, make their own choices, and live a healthy life,” she said.
CONTRIBUTING TO A BEAUTIFUL COMMUNITY
Coburn Place has been a partner with the Indianapolis Art Center in its ArtReach program for 12 years. The teacher, “Miss Jude” Odell, has been with ArtReach since its beginning more than 20 years ago. Beverly generously allowed this reporter to tour the Coburn Place building at 604 E. 38th St., an imaginative re-use of the former IPS School 66.
Residents stay from six months to two years in 35 furnished apartments that come rent-free with utilities paid except for cable or extra devices. The women must be victims of “intimate domestic abuse” by a spouse or live-in partner (fighting with your mother or sister doesn’t count) and would otherwise be homeless. There is a waiting list of about eight to twelve months depending on the size of the family, Beverly said.
When residents find permanent housing and are ready to move on, they can take their furniture with them, which is why Coburn Place is always in need of donated furniture and home furnishings. “Someone has a guest room and they are downsizing? Yes, we’ll take that,” said volunteer and resource director Jennifer Hund. That includes “gently used” beds and mattresses. “We are one of the few places that take those,” Beverly said.
Visiting the art studio and playroom is a trip into a happy place where student artwork fills every cranny of the activities room and adjacent hallway. Hanging from the ceiling like sheets on a clothesline were a number of artworks from a photographic exercise that involved flashlights with colored lenses. The papers were filled with dancing trails of light. “They used light as a paintbrush,” Vazquez explained of the exercise in abstract art at Coburn Place. And there they were, in real life, artworks created by children learning how motion and color can evoke mood.
The IAC also ran a pilot program this summer called Art Bus, in which a rented bus took ArtReach students around town to look at and learn to appreciate public art. One of Vazquez’s favorite stops is in Midtown: “The Love Train,” two blocks of painted box cars on a retaining wall, chugging from 52nd Street to near 54th Street along the Monon Trail just east of Winthrop Avenue.
But on this train, instead of logos that designate the railroad companies the cars come from, words such as LOVE, PEACE, BE NICE, and I LOVE YOU are stenciled on the cars, which have been brightly painted in blues, reds, greens, yellows, and more. The mural was the idea of the now defunct Department of Public Words (DPW) and designed by Midwestern stencil artist Peat Wollaeger. Two hundred volunteers did the painting.
“So the children learn that even if they are not going to be artists, they can contribute to beautifying their neighborhoods. Everyone wants to live in a beautiful community,” Vazquez said. “Art is such an excellent way for people to find self-expression and activities that are wholesome and enjoyable and that they can use all of their lives to express their emotions and relieve stress,” she added. And that is part of the ArtReach mission: “To serve communities not otherwise able to have art in their communities.”
Marion Simon Garmel is a retired arts journalist and serves as secretary of the Woman’s Press Club of Indiana
A version of this article appears in the August/September 2018 print edition of the magazine.