While winter break is typically a time of rest and relaxation, Kimberley Africa PO ’15 and Karen Herrera PO ’15 were busy this break making art with high school students in a studio on Maintain Street in the nearby city of La Puente.
Africa and Herrera are co-heads of the Voices Arts Enrichment Program, or Voices Project, an offshoot of Pomona College’s Mellon Elemental Arts Initiative. The Initiative, which provides funding to students for work in the arts, seeks to engage students with the creation of art and art culture both on campus and in their communities. For Africa and Herrera, the Voices Project represented a way to take the Initiative’s aims a step further.
“I think we were looking at the intention behind art, the content as opposed to the production,” Africa said.
The Voices Project focused on working with student artists to bridge art creation with different aspects of identity, including race, class, gender, age, religion, sexuality, and immigration status. The emphasis on personal identity and self-image is key to the Voices Project.
“Everyone calls themselves artists these days,” Herrera said. “Everyone makes art, everyone takes photos. But where is it coming from?”
Africa and Herrera sought answers to this very question by partnering with the Rit gallery in downtown La Puente to work with at-risk, low-income high school students. Over a series of weeks, the two offered seven workshops to about a dozen students, providing students with artistic materials. Herrera said that the typical day included a workshop about topics related to art or social justice, lunch, and then studio time.
“They must have gotten at least 20 hours of studio time, and they probably produced a lot more than I have in some my classes here at Pomona as an art major,” Herrera said.
Herrera explained the program’s aim to work specifically with at-risk students.
“Either they are at-risk academically, at-risk because they are undocumented, at-risk because of their environments,” she said.
In a picture taken at one of the workshops, a teenage girl holds up a painting of a woman cradling a child. Herrera said that the painting symbolized the student’s journey to the United States from Mexico with her mother and her status as an undocumented citizen. Africa added that upon seeing the painting, three other students in the program approached the artist, shared their experience of being undocumented in America, and began discussing their hometowns in Mexico.
Gilda Ochoa, a professor of sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Pomona, is a La Puente native. She said that she found that much of the student work “really showed issues students were concerned about — popular culture, personal, familial, and larger societal dynamics.”
For both Africa and Herrera, the Voices Project represents an educational tool that linked art and artists with context and language about their identities.
As Herrera said, “a lot these students don’t know the word ‘intersectionality,’ but they experience it.”
“And they talk about it,” Africa added.
More than providing the opportunity for self-expression or self-care, art can give young artists the linguistic ability to assert themselves in the art world, Africa said, and make a statement greater than words.
Much of the work done with the students of La Puente was a response to the two leaders’ own artistic experiences.
“When you think of art,” Africa said, “you think of museums, which tend to display Western or European ideas.”
The art created in La Puente, however, spoke not just to the academic mind about race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity, but also to anecdotal or experience-based knowledge with which people could empathize.
Herrera attested to this integral difference.
“When we’re talking about art in an academic context, we refer to this painting, this institution, this museum as an example of Western canonical art that none of us see ourselves in,” she said.
Herrera understands the philosophy of the Voices Project as a medium through which students can create their own canon and, in doing so, represent their community and resist assumptions and labels perpetuated by Western media.
One night, after students completed the seven workshops and numerous works of art, Africa and Herrera hosted a gallery tour of the artwork. School board members, teachers from the students’ high school, Pomona professors, and even the La Puente mayor showed up, according to Herrera.
“All of the student artwork was phenomenal,” Ochoa said. “By the time I left, the studio was largely full.”
Both leaders noted that students were particularly proud of the work they had done and expressed hope that the kids got something out of the program.
“Art classes at La Puente High have at least 40 kids,” Africa said. The Voices Project allowed students to interact with their instructors on a more personal level.
At one point, Africa called a student who was absent at the day’s workshop. It was a practice the student hadn’t experienced before.
“The school just sends home recorded messages if you’re absent,” Africa explained, “but we’re going to call your house, and if your car broke down, we’re going to pick you up.”
Africa and Herrera both expressed a desire to continue exposing at-risk students to art as a vehicle for identity expression. Herrera said that she is applying for a grant that would recreate the Voices Project as an ongoing program supported by additional mentors.
The leaders also said they hope to bring the students they worked with to Pomona’s campus to engage with art on a new level.
“Art is like a different language,” Herrera said in conclusion. “For these students, art was an alternative language that was otherwise inaccessible.”
Pictures from the workshops can be viewed at voicesarts.tumblr.com