ATLANTA – Adesuwa Orobor sits alone in the corner of the studio, frustrated at her sketch. On the desk in front of the 16-year-old is her muse, a photo of Picasso’s “Queen Isabella.”
“I keep trying, but I keep messing it up,” she says of her fair rendering of the Spanish artist’s portrait in oil.
Orobor, like most of the young artists in the room, isn’t there because she wants to be. Instead, her probation officer referred her to Fulton County’s Art-At-Work program, which provides employment in the arts for juvenile offenders and other at-risk youth.
Although she’s on probation, she won’t say why.
“I’m not bad, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m sweet like my shirt says,” Orobor says, holding up the shoulders of her shirt to display Gothic letters spelling “SWEET” across her chest.
Other students, too, are reticent about why they were referred to the program.
“I can stay out of trouble by myself, but this is something to do,” says 14-year-old Josh Barber, whose probation officer “recommended” he enter the program.
Seventeen-year-old Jaquese Moultrie says that something illegal on school property landed him on probation. When asked to elaborate, he smirks shyly and says that he was “just being bad for no apparent reason.”
Art-At-Work encourages teen offenders to embrace a positive identity. While a few were referred by courts because of theft or drug possession, most are guilty of minor infractions such as truancy, fighting or joy riding.
It’s one of at least 200 art-based programs nationwide that run the gamut from drawing, sculpting and poetry to drama, dance, photography and film.
The Coming Up Taller initiative, a project of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, distributes annual awards to the top programs. Some of last year’s recipients were Baltimore’s Aquarium on Wheels, which puts children on stage in science-based theater productions; New York City’s Saturday Outreach Program, in which teens study drawing and architecture; and Los Angeles’ CalArts Community Arts Partnership, which teaches children about writing and animation.
In San Francisco, a Midnight Shakespeare program was started to accommodate a relatively new phenomenon/risk factor of children staying up late on the weekends.
Studies have shown that children in such programs benefit personally and academically, regardless of what type of art they make. A U.S. Justice Department study conducted from 1995 to 1998 concluded that participants in arts programs are less likely to commit crimes again, less likely to skip school and tend to perform better in school.
The study specifically analyzed the Art-At-Work program in Atlanta and concluded that half the teens committed another crime while in the program, compared to nearly four out of five repeaters among juvenile offenders in the area who were not involved in the program.
Art also can help augment communication and organization skills, conflict resolution and the ability to plan and follow through, says Bill Bulick, a former director of Portland’s Regional Arts & Culture Council who has conducted research on youth art programs for the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Justice Department.
“The arts is just such a complete experience because it involves all of that,” he says.
Tae Jackson, a program coordinator for Art-At-Work, sees the benefits firsthand.
“You can really see how it affects their self-esteem,” says Jackson, who noted that all students, whether referred by courts or schools, are generally well-behaved.
“There’s a very thin line between the little darlings and the Fulton County court kids.”
The program holds four sessions a year, and eight to 17 students – most with little or no art experience – are paid $6 an hour each to attend the program Mondays through Thursdays after school. One of the sessions is held during the summer.
Adult artists work with the children as a group and individually. Jackson chooses the medium, which can include fused glass, ceramics, bookmaking, photography and poetry. Recently, the teens made totem poles, and African beat artist Gimoh Burrimoh taught them how to make tile mosaics and glass-bead paintings.
“Anything that has immediate results and anything they can get their hands into and get dirty quick have been the most popular,” Jackson says.
But the students don’t get to keep their artwork. Each masterpiece is put on silent auction, and buyers can snatch up fused glass plates and mosaic tables for bargain prices, usually $20 to $30 apiece.
Jackson says a glass mosaic table once commanded $250, an Art-At-Work record.
The money goes toward the next session’s materials, and “anything not sold becomes part of our permanent collection,” she says of the stray tables, plates and decorative boxes that adorn the studio.
Art-At-Work also receives $141,000 a year from the Fulton County Arts Council, but Jackson applies for grants and seeks donations because it is tough to keep the program afloat.
The Atlanta program does not track the recidivism rates of its participants.
“I’m just happy to hear, ‘I graduated high school,’ ” Jackson says.
Atlanta’s program, which started in 1995 and has served almost 400 children since then, is one of the few long-term success stories of its kind.
Such programs as the Hull House in Chicago and Third Street Music School Settlement in New York City have been around for more than a century. But many of the art programs for at-risk youth seem to fizzle after their initial funding runs dry, says Randy Cohen of the Washington D.C.-based Americans for the Arts.
A 1996 Coming Up Taller report, the latest such study, identified 218 programs serving 88,600 youth a year, with 92 percent of the youngsters teens.
The same report said that the average budget for a program was $158,537. Programs received funds from the federal and local governments, corporations, foundations and individuals.
“Maintaining these programs is a real challenge,” says Cohen, who has researched such programs for 16 years. “There’s this five-year mark with so many of the programs. You just start to see them disappear.”
The problem is a combination of a lukewarm economy that forces government to slash social programs and philanthropists spurred to fill the void but torn over where to send their charitable dollars, says Portland’s Bulick.
Bulick says he’s heard the question often: “Is it art or is it youth development?”
To Jackson and others, the answer is clear – it’s both.