Express Yourself Milwaukee: Art Therapy for Social Change
By Sarah Buccheri and Lisa Danker2009 Performance, "Bounce" (photo courtesy of Express Yourself
Yourself Milwaukee is a unique social program that connects at-risk youth with
established local artists. One
quick look at the photographs on EYM’s Facebook page shows just what it means to the
kids to be a part of the program.
Their smiles jump off the screen and, in that moment, one can glimpse
the positive impact that organizations like EYM have on a kid’s life. EYM joins at-risk youth in alternative
schools, residential treatment centers and detention facilities with
professional artists to collaborate in a therapeutic art practice. The youth develop artistic techniques
to express themselves more effectively through dance, music, and visual
art. Every year the youths’ and
artists’ efforts culminate in a grand production integrating collaborative work
in performance, music, and set design; the show always draws large audiences
and often attracts key community figures.
This year’s performance will take place at the Humphrey Scottish Rite
Center on May 12th. SNAPmilwaukee
Film/Video editor Sarah Buccheri spoke with Lori Vance, the Executive Director
and Artistic Coordinator of Express Yourself Milwaukee along with Jamal Currie,
an artistic team member at EYM and head of the Time-Based Media program at the
Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
and Currie discussed the practices and philosophies underlying Express Yourself
as well as its roles in the lives of both the at-risk youth and the artists who
work with them. They highlight how
the organization functions within the city of Milwaukee, emphasizing how art
practice facilitates therapeutic growth.
Safe Environments for Self Expression
Express Yourself Milwaukee strives to provide a healthy and
productive environment for its youth, which begins with enabling harmonious
collaboration among the artistic leaders and adults. It can be challenging to coordinate objectives among many
artists but the dynamic energy and high artistic standards that result from
successful collaboration are well worth the effort. The positive effects of
this collaboration ripple out to the youth and even further into the community.
Vance said: “I tend to draw around me people that are pretty self-directed and
it’s hard for us to collaborate.
And so to figure out how to do that also makes change in society. If we can figure out how to get beyond
some of our challenges and make it work that’s a great example for kids on a
real, direct level but also really changes the environment that we all live in.”
educational background is in art therapy and the mission of Express Yourself
Milwaukee has formal therapeutic underpinnings that make their work accountable
to treatment plans for the youth with whom they work. Express Yourself is partnered with the art therapy program
at Mt. Mary College and works regularly with interns from the program. This therapy-based approach allows EYM
to work with youth from correctional facilities and other institutions that
require medical treatment plans.
The EYM youth come to feel
naturally safe with adults who, while acting as role models, also work with
them side by side on artistic projects.
The youth feel remarkably comfortable with Currie and will often jokingly
give him a hard time as they get to know him. Collaboration is beneficial to both the youth and the
artists helping them.
EYM’s projects are based on
an idea of artistic exchange between artists and young people, and not meant
only as a situation in which artists are teaching their craft. Vance has noticed through the years
that however the artists’ work in their given media becomes influenced and
inspired by the work they do at EYM.
Themes and techniques explored with the children start to show up in the
artwork they do outside of the program.
Working with the kids and EYM’s Artistic Team has been a fulfilling
experience for Currie. “You know,
as an artist and as an educator it’s a really strong support system for me here
in the city. So it’s a big reason
why I want to stay [in Milwaukee].”
Creating safe environments for artistic expression is especially
significant for at-risk youth in our city.
The winter studio schedule began
in January and continues through May, with monthly Saturday workshops
featuring special topics: puppet making, set design, and a visit from Amlak
Tafari of the band Steel Pulse.
When asked about their hopes and fears for
Milwaukee, Vance and Currie had mixed responses. Vance has the impression of
herself as wide-eyed and optimistic, feeling she should be more jaded as she
confronts the city’s problems. She
cited the fact that 70% of youth in the Wisconsin juvenile correctional system
are from Milwaukee. And as
Milwaukee gets press for being the 4th poorest city in America and now the most
racially segregated city in the nation, Express Yourself Milwaukee is taking on
the gigantic task of “reducing the sense of isolation and disenfranchisement
[many of Milwaukee’s young people] have grown accustomed to feeling” (quoted
from EYM’s website).
As Currie states, “Working
with Express Yourself opens your eyes to the inequalities that exist in the
city. We’ve lost students to gun
violence and other sorts of bad situations. It’s really, in my estimation, a rough place to grow up, or can
be, depending on who you are, how much money you have, the color of your
skin.” But he continued to
describe Milwaukee as his second home and his neighborhood of Riverwest as Mr.
Rogers’ neighborhood with an edge.
Both Currie and Vance
maintain a sense of hope and excitement in their work while simultaneously
having a nuanced and realistic awareness of Milwaukee’s deep problems, which is
no easy feat when battling such entrenched and long-standing societal obstacles
their youth must face.
2009 Performance, "Bounce" (photo courtesy of Express Yourself
Part of the battle in
confronting a society that does not value you and provides you with limited
opportunity is deconstructing the media that disseminates the prejudiced
value-system. Currie finds that dissection
of the processes behind media construction is a vital component of his work
with the young people of Express Yourself. One project involved youth at a juvenile correction center
and younger students collaborating on an animation piece. Because it is against the law to
publicize the faces of youth in detention, Currie used the animation technique
of rotoscoping as a way to obfuscate their identify while keeping visible their
performance of dance steps learned from the dance troupe STOMP. He brought the footage to a younger
group of kids and worked on coloring each video frame taken of the dance. When each colored frame is then played
in rapid succession, the illusion of motion is created. We are given the opportunity to see the
dance and the creative energy displayed by the youth in detention; they become
agents in a positive and community-realized depiction of themselves, which is
in direct opposition to the ways in which such youth are usually portrayed in
the media. Vance emphasizes the
importance of this process: “These kids are so beautiful…We don’t see them as
beautiful kids for the most part – on a social level, on a community level. We want to lock them up and pretend
they don’t exist…[We] tend to see them for what their challenges are.”
“There’s such a power in
media to influence and it’s so often put to some strange uses,” Currie
continues. “There’s nothing better
in improving your understanding of viewpoint and perspective and using [media]
as a bully pulpit than knowing how it’s made. That kind of deconstruction takes away some of the
power.” Currie hopes by teaching
the tools of media making to young people they will become more able to defend
themselves against the influential power of damaging messages. And after you know how something is
made, “you have the power to make it yourself and put out your own viewpoint.”
The recent controversy over
Governor Scott Walker’s budget and policies has left Vance wary of the future.
Although EYM has a diverse funding base, including the Non-Profit Management
Fund and the Helen Bader Foundation, much of their programming is made possible
through contracts with the State. EYM
provides unique social services that supplement many governmental programs,
working with Milwaukee Public Schools and the State of Wisconsin Department of
Corrections. But the funding used
to contract with EYM will most likely be cut from Walker’s budget, taking
valuable artistic experiences away from children and young people who most need
Making a peace tree leaf (photo courtesy of Express Yourself
The process of art-making
within EYM is much more than the means to an end. It is a therapeutic engagement with aesthetics, a way to
build bridges across socioeconomic groups and ages, and an important space for
Currie led a collaboration
between elementary school students and his Advanced Video class at Milwaukee
Institute of Art and Design on the production of a video called “Blackhole
Sun.” The project originated with
a drawing by an artistic team leaders’ nine-year-old child. The drawing depicts a figure picking
the sun up off the ground after it has fallen and left a mark on the earth. The
sun is surrounded by small blue stick figures enacting different motions around
the fallen sun and human figure. A
group of students at the Eighth Street School came up with a basic story for
the picture and later scripted and created storyboards for it. Using the script and storyboards by the
students, the Advanced Video students produced the final animation. Currie explained, “It went from this
little kid’s photograph to a group of high school students working heavily in
pre-production, and really getting their imaginations going, and then taking it
to MIAD, where advanced students get a chance to realize the vision in service,
really, and in collaboration. I
love that. And that’s what I’m
shooting for from now on in my work for “Express Yourself,” is finding those
kinds of exchanges.”
Jamal very much enjoyed the
inter-age collaboration among groups of students who never met during the
process––one type of correspondence; but no matter the approach, “Express
Yourself” emphasizes the process of art-making over the final product, allowing
participants to find joy in creative self-expression. Jamal and Lori were both surprised by the seriousness that
the students brought to the critique of the final “Blackhole Sun” video,
remarking that it matched the rigor of a formal art-school critique.
While focusing on process
underlies all of EYM’s approaches, it is never more apparent to the EYM leaders
than when the youth prepare for the final performance at the end of the
2008 Performance, "Celebrate" (photo courtesy of Express Yourself
The weeks leading up to the
performance are often demanding.
Vance and Currie talked about the value of this challenge for the EYM
youth and how important it is that they have a chance to be seen for their
talent as opposed to the societal challenges that usually define them in the
eyes of the public. Lori Vance
stated that “the community tends to see them for what their challenges
are–[alternatively, at the performances, the community] can sit there and be
witness to the incredible gifts these kids have.”
The culmination of the
performance is as much about the youth developing confidence in their abilities
to produce art as having a chance to show off their talents onstage. Lori explained that many youth, when
first entering EYM, feel that they can’t or don’t know how to make art. The artistic team leaders encourage
them by gradually introducing them to new techniques. If they are comfortable with painting, but not as familiar
with dancing, artistic team leaders will suggest one dance move, for example,
that can then influence the way they move their paintbrush.
The students’ attitudes about their own abilities to produce
art, then, change significantly as they spend time in the program, and the
year-end performance is a chance for the youth to demonstrate their
self-confidence and their talent.
Jamal Currie said: “Some of those kids, once they have that audience,
they go, they shine. It’s just incredible.” This semester’s culminating performance is scheduled for May
12th at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Center, with an open dress rehearsal at
12:00pm and performance at 6:00pm.
Admission is free but donations are most welcome.
As Wisconsin cultural
institutions and arts programs are defunded in favor of highway expansion and
tax cuts for the wealthiest, community support for Milwaukee organizations such
as EYM is critical. Attend Express
Yourself Milwaukee’s performance and witness positive change made possible by
the arts and social services.