By Laura Kennedy
An artist. A teacher. An illustrator.
Those were the three paths to an art career that Kendra Paitz heard about when she was growing up. Now that she’s the director and chief curator of the University Galleries in Normal, Paitz decided to show area young people all sorts of possibilities for a career in the visual arts. With the help of a grant from the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation, she established the University Galleries’ Teen Arts group, inviting a group of Bloomington High School students to the galleries for a yearlong program of unique opportunities. View photos of group setting up exhibit.
“A lot of high school students would reach out, after having a tour through here, about getting an internship or volunteering,” said Paitz. “Artist, teacher, illustrator are all awesome, wonderful professions, but there are all these other paths you can take, like conservator or registrar.”
Or curator. More on that in a minute.
“Throughout the course of the program the students have had the opportunity to meet with professional artists, to visit studios, to look at collections,” explained Paitz.
The group also ventured up to Chicago to wander through the Art Institute and also meet with a graphic design crew.
Katie Novotny, 17, was drawn to the promise of fun in the group. The BHS student is passionate about art, choosing oil paint as her medium of creative expression. But she knew there was more out there to explore.
“It really has given me a sense of perspective for some of the other options I could possibly work in,” said Novotny. “I do want to pursue studio arts as a possible option. This just helps me be involved in the community itself.”
Grace Marcy just finished her junior year at Bloomington High and was grateful for the opportunity to branch out as part of the Teen Arts group. She’s into painting, drawing and graphic art. And now she has practical experience as an art curator.
“This is really a great way to do something outside of your typical high school group. Being able to experience the Chicago trip and working with materials such as the International Collection of Child Art was a great opportunity to expand myself as an artist.”
Here’s the boffo part of the Teen Arts group: The culminating project of the program was the chance to curate an exhibition of selections from The International Collection of Child Art at Illinois State University’s Milner Library. Paitz explained the approach was to let the teens curate works from artists in their own age group, and that The International Collection of Child Art was a natural resource.
The collection was initiated in 1960 to celebrate the creativity of children through a global perspective. The collection holds over 8,000 works from more than 50 countries. The students surveyed the collection and came up with 50 works that are now featured in “15,16,17, 18: BHS Selects From the International Collection of Child Arts.”
Jordan Davis just graduated from BHS and is an avid photographer who specializes in candid works. Davis was caught off guard by some of the works in the collection.
“Some of them are very dark for teenagers,” said Davis. “Like this one from Bolivia. It’s very sad.”
The somber image indicated by Davis is called “My Brother,” which depicts a figure with head in hands. The photographer in Davis was drawn to the captured moment that invites interpretation.
“I like the idea of capturing somebody when they’re not looking. You don’t realize how you might come off. They might be chillin’, but the way they were captured, they look very upset. You never know the story behind it. They could have lost somebody they love, or they could have just failed a math test.”
Paitz gave the students complete freedom to make their choices for the exhibition. She said the art the teens selected often reflected the personality of the student doing the choosing.
“For me, as a curator, it was particularly exciting to see how these students looked at all these different selections, narrowed it down and made these really cohesive hangings out of them. You can see in a lot of these instances why they picked specific works. Jordan has a real interest in social issues and justice. And you can see that in the works that Jordan selected.”
Novotny let color lead her choices.
“Bright colors really catch my eye,” she explained. “So that’s something I was looking for when selecting the pieces. I’m also drawn to nature and landscapes. So that’s some of what you can see in the pieces I’ve chosen.”
Marcy has dubbed herself The Organized Artist, so she followed her heart in that direction when selecting artworks.
“I’m a very clean, organized artist. So, I like a lot of the clean works, and I like to look at color a lot.”
Marcy considered not just how the paintings and drawings themselves were organized, but also took into account how they would work thematically with each other on a wall. Marcy wanted to be sure that her choices of clean, organized design and subject matter harmonized well with the surrounding works.
The students learned that curation doesn’t end with the selection of materials. Paitz let them roam through the various gallery spaces to find the right spot for the exhibition.
“We talked about the pros and cons of putting the exhibition in each of the spaces,” Paitz said as she glanced around the small, center gallery. “They chose this space and they talked through a lot of ideas. At one point, they thought about painting stripes on the wall to delineate different sections for each of them. Then they decided they liked this clean, light grey that we have throughout the gallery.”
Once the exhibition was installed and open to the public, curator Jordan Davis felt that the artwork could provide insight into the minds of young artists.
“Sometimes teenagers don’t have a voice. They need a way to express themselves to tell their side of the story. Sometimes they have to speak the truth.”
Marcy agreed that the exhibition provides a window into the teen creative mind, which she felt deserved more attention.
“I feel like art is such a child expression. That’s our first way of expressing ourselves. And as we grow older, I feel like a lot of us lose that a little bit. So, having the progression from child to adult with your art, it’s really great to see the teenager’s perspective of things, because I think that’s something we overlook.”
Novotny noted that the exhibition is currently running alongside two other shows featuring professional adult artists. Novotny said the show curated by the teens helps to put the children’s art on equal footing.
“I just think that teenagers have a lot of talent and a lot of passion and sometimes they don’t get as much credit or exposure as more experienced, well-known adult artists. So, it’s been really nice to be able to show some of the work that the children did in the same way as a professional artist.”
Paitz said the most important aspect of the Teen Arts group is to give young people artistic agency.
“Young people are brilliant and creative, and they just don’t always have the most outlets to showcase that. I think if we’re going to do this, it has to be guided by the students and by their needs.”
“15,16,17, 18: BHS Selects From the International Collection of Child Arts” is currently on view through July 28 at the University Galleries.
Illinois Prairie Community Foundation awarded a 2018 Mirza/Arts & Culture Grant to Illinois State University for its “Teen Arts Council at University Galleries.”
If you would like to help fund more programs like this in the community, donate online to IPCF’s Arts & Culture Endowment Fund which helps fund the Arts & Culture Grants.