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Special Sauce

Art 180’s Atlas Residency connects teens with working artist mentors.


“The reason that art is that magic special sauce is that you can add it to other curriculums that bring it alive – because the subject matter of art is always yourself. And that's always highly, highly relevant no matter who you are,” says Barry O’Keefe, a teacher at the Atlas Artist Residency program. The eight-week summer residency is run by Art 180, the Richmond nonprofit offering art programs and events for young people and the community.

Ten students, who were selected from a pool of more than 40 applicants from area high schools, received a stipend and free art supplies and worked alongside two mentors and their peers. The program, held at the Atlas Gallery in Jackson Ward, helps to build lasting relationships among the young artists as they collaborate with each other and hone their craft.

“What I've come to really appreciate that I find different than just being in a setting with a teacher is that it feels more like an equal playing field,” says Hannah Gallagher, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School. “There's very much a reason for the word … ‘mentors,’ instead of teachers, because they're there to guide you. They push me in a direction to really challenge myself but also didn't push me away from the ideas or values that I hold very strongly in my art.”

Gallagher, who focuses on digital art and realism in painting and drawing, worked on a self-portrait while in the program. “I always had such a draw to the face, specifically the eye, because it conveys so much emotion,” she explains, carefully filling in a pupil on her canvas and adding that she planned to add yellow hands to the self-portrait.

O’Keefe says the program includes morning meditation, daily self-portraits, and self-reflective writing in journals. “We've done a lot of journaling and trying to understand the images from our memory, almost as works of art in waiting,” he says. “In sharing that, I think we've gained windows into each other that are unusual to find in a classroom setting.”

Student artist Niyah McGee-Hawkins, who is home-schooled, says the meditation and journaling was “a cool addition to the drawing and creativity, to kind of step back and figure out where your mind’s at, so you can be more open and creative.”

Alliannah Hamilton, an assistant art teacher in the program said the residency offers practical tools to help students to sharpen their artistic skills and learn about self-actualization and self- care. “A lot of times, we start our class off with five-to-10-minute meditations,” she says. “And we like to get ourselves in this flow state, which helps when it comes to expressing our ideas. And we find peace of mind in our practice, and outside of our practice.”

“Everyone here is very open, and very creative, and very kind in helping guide us through this part of our lives,” says McGee-Hawkins. She adds that the program helped her become “more comfortable with trying new things and just drawing myself.”

Hamilton continues: “Our values cover holistic healing, and those aspects of being an artist because that's important, you know, to be an artist, and just to have that peace of mind, and to tap into that side when it comes to developing our practices.”

Alliannah Hamilton says her job is to facilitate students' growth: “I am here to share my wisdom and help problem-solve and develop artistic character and development." - ROBERTA OSTER
  • Roberta Oster
  • Alliannah Hamilton says her job is to facilitate students' growth: “I am here to share my wisdom and help problem-solve and develop artistic character and development."

A sense of community

In addition to in-class activities, the students took a trip to Washington DC to visit the National Portrait Gallery and the National Musician of African Art, and they spent four days on a camping trip in the Shenandoah National Park with their mentors. O’Keefe says the trip was helpful in building trust and relationships with their peers. “This camping trip that we took to Shenandoah, there's something that you can't recreate about the intensity of being together, outside, and honestly, maybe the discomfort is a kind of bonding experience.”

“We did hiking, walking meditation, sound maps,” Hamilton adds. “We got to look at telescopes and stars and constellations and learn a lot about nature and flowers and the native wildflowers, animals, native bugs and just how everything is connected.”

Hamilton says her job is to facilitate student’s growth. “I am here to share my wisdom and help problem-solve and develop artistic character and development, helping with artists’ development for these students who want to be artists.”

As a busy high school senior, McGee-Hawkins says that art gives her a chance to step back from what's going on all around her. “[It] helped me stay more focused. So, when the outside things in the world are really stressful and do get, you know, very overwhelmed. It's just art. It's just a great way to step back and slow down.”

Gallagher looks around the studio as the nine other student-artists worked on their self-portraits. “It's such a community in this space,” she notes. “And I've grown to appreciate all of them, and everyone so much and [I’m] quite sad to let it go.”

O’Keefe says his students are hungry for a sense of community, and that the connections and energy generated by working in a shared space can be transformative for artists: “So much of what makes for success or failure, or even just continuing to make art is what kind of community you feel like you're a part of, and how positive peer pressure is shaping your image of yourself, your sense of motivation, and your sense of belonging.” He says that without a community, “it doesn't really matter what solitary skills you have, you can't make work unless you feel like you're part of a community.”

For many students, art classes are their only safe space, according to O’Keefe. “There's a certain number of students for whom the arts classroom is their one refuge in the world. And so, we have to preserve that, or we lose people. But I think art is important for all students.”

Art student Hannah Gallagher - ROBERTA OSTER
  • Roberta Oster
  • Art student Hannah Gallagher

“Chase your fear”

Hamilton’s advice to young artists is to “chase your fear,” because she says, “a lot of times our fear is what really holds us back from living our most authentic lives and being on our most authentic path.”

As funding for the arts in public schools continues to decline, nonprofits like Art 180 have stepped in to offer arts programs for local youth. Nicole Jones, Art 180’s deputy director, says: “As a city and country, we need to fund and fully integrate art into our educational system because it builds our youth's confidence, creativity, agency, and voice. Art is an essential tool for equity and justice.”

The program gives art students the opportunity to create a portfolio they can use to apply to college art programs, and they learn how they can sustain themselves in a career in art. They also have a rare opportunity to showcase their work in a public art opening. During one of the First Friday Art Walks in Richmond, Art 180 hosted “Bloom,” inviting students, their mentors, and others to exhibit work and share their thoughts on the program.

“I'm very excited in the sense that this is one of the first shows where I've been able to show my art on a very big scale,” Gallagher says. “There's a kind of this joy that I have, of inviting all my friends and family to be able to show them a side of myself that I don't often present.”

McGee-Hawkins shares that sense of enthusiasm.

“It's public, and I've never done an exhibition or anything like that before,” she says, “I think having other people interested in what I'm doing is going to be really great.”

O’Keefe says exhibiting and sharing their work is an important part of the students’ artistic and personal growth.

“To have your art seen, especially art that's personal, is to be seen yourself,” he explains. “Art is communication. If we can succeed at communicating, then we are not alone. And so, you know, the deeper a thing you can communicate successfully, the less alone you are.”

The program also aims to reach beyond the classroom to help address more systemic issues in the community, according to Jones. “The Atlas Artist Residency is critical because of Richmond's long history of silencing the voices of youth and people in marginalized communities,” Jones explains. “It lifts the voices of the youth who speak with pride, credibility, and validity—helping to put their stories into the world and allowing others to absorb and understand them.”

Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared on VPM News.

Correction: The former number of applicants in an earlier version of this story has been changed from 70 to 40.