Arts » Visual Art

Durham artists and students team up for innovative training program

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Jared Nelson Lopez leans forward in his chair to concentrate. The Durham School of the Arts student moves a box of small, sculpted heads from his lap to the floor. Sitting next to painter and graphic artist Adrienne Garnett in a workroom off of Golden Belt's ROOM 100 Gallery, he looks over at her to see if she wants to jump in to answer the question a visiting reporter has just asked him.

Garnett, who could be Lopez's grandmother, smiles broadly but keeps her mouth closed. The message: You're on your own, kid.

Lopez and Garnett are one of five pairs of high school-age artists and professional artist mentors who've worked together for the last 20 weeks through the Creative Mentorship Program created by the Durham Art Guild and Student U, a Durham-based college-access organization.

Now the fruits of that collaborative labor are on the gallery walls as part of Intersections, the program's concluding exhibition. In addition to weekly art instruction, mentors have taught the young artists how to install an exhibit, write artist's statements and even price their work. But more than all of that, the mentors have helped the students to clarify and extend their thought, and to express that through a variety of media.

Lopez and Garnett are in the frantic, final days of work before hanging their collaborative project, "Prisoners of Time," an installation comprising sculptural elements as well as drawings. But their signature piece isn't quite done yet.

Lopez begins pointing out the components of a cardboard grandfather clock, which represents a body. He notes the visceral clumps of VHS tape tumbling out of the clock's cavity. But he's merely listing his materials, so Garnett interrupts him.

"And what is VHS tape for?"

"It's for movies," he answers, with a shrug.

"And what are movies?" she asks.

Eventually Garnett, a former high school art teacher, leads Lopez into a discussion of how memories are stored and how they function in the present. One can imagine 20 weeks of such Socratic discussions between the two.

Students came into the Creative Mentorship Program expecting to develop specific skills—to improve their figure drawing or to compose a photograph more effectively. However, as weeks of conversations went by, many of the students took a conceptual turn.

"I expected both mentor and student to grow and to develop a relationship," Durham Art Guild Education and Outreach Coordinator Laura Ritchie says. "But the artwork that the students have created—with guidance from their mentor, but it's really their own ideas—some of it is highly conceptual work. The level of craftsmanship is high, too, and the students are so self-motivated."

Originally co-coordinators of the Guild with Katie Seiz, Ritchie became so excited about the mentorship program that they created the outreach coordinator role for her, leaving Seiz as the sole gallery director.

In January, calls were put out for Durham Art Guild members to volunteer as mentors and for Student U students with an interest in art making. Ritchie and Student U High School Program Director Alexandra Zagbayou selected five candidates each, and Ritchie paired the guild artists with the student artists based on aspects of their work and practice.

Photographer Jim Lee worked with Hillside New Tech junior Rey Cruz, whose photograph of a dilapidated wall has become the cover image for Intersections. Mosaic artist Jeannette Brossart was assigned to Southern High School sophomore Diamond Johnson, who made mosaics and took photographs as well. Northern High School sophomore Angel Naranjo made ceramics and paintings with painter and printmaker Caty Kendall.

"I tried to focus on a wide range of artistic expertise," Ritchie says. "Based on the media and what the student expressed interest in, it wasn't hard to match them up with the right person."

After this show comes down, the program will enter an evaluation phase in the fall, as Ritchie and Zagbayou gather feedback from the student artists and their parents as well as the mentor artists. Then they hope to expand the pilot into a full-blown program, aspiring to double its size in spring of 2014.

But the mentorships won't end just because the exhibit has to. The students and artists are already making summer plans to keep working together.

"A lot of that student-mentor dynamic that I expected has fallen away," Ritchie says. "They're partners, collaborators, co-creators of this work. They're taking it very seriously."

In another part of the gallery, the fifth mentor-student duo is at work. Durham School of the Arts student Vernondo Garcia-Carroll sits on the floor with a metal ruler and an old architectural floor plan, drawing a geometric figure in precise lines. This will be part of a collage that takes its tile-like design from the mathematical Fibonacci sequence, he explains. Mentor Lee Moore Crawford flits up to offer alternative tools for his task and then withdraws, staying out of his way.

Garcia-Carroll's interests run from sculpture to music, but he's leaning toward a career in the sciences. In Crawford he found a mentor who's made a life out of combining such wide-ranging interests and talents. They even discovered a mutual passion for Japanese culture—his in anime and hers in ikebana, the art of flower arranging.

Components of an installation based on that passion, including a television with the Japanese characters for "intersections" spray-painted on its screen, are strewn about a tabletop along with books on mathematical patterns in nature.

They kick around ideas for a title for the developing piece. "I don't know," he muses. "I'm really against literal titles."

Crawford teases Garcia-Carroll as she instructs. "You have to commit, eventually. You've just gotta let go," she says to him, chuckling with measured facetiousness.

"His ideas are so complex. The common people have to be able to have some insight into it."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Passing the artistic touch."

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