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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Milwaukee’s Urban Youth—Valued and Visible

Express Yourself Milwaukee’s pop up galleries

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One of the greatest challenges facing urban Milwaukeeans, states Express Yourself Milwaukee’s (EYM) Executive Director Lori Vance, is “the sense of other. Art really breaks that down.” EYM is a nonprofit organization that celebrates the creative arts as a tool to transform the lives of at-risk urban youth. In regards to the community she serves, Vance continues, “The kids our society doesn’t seem to value really have a lot to contribute.” Visit EYM’s five outdoor pop up art galleries for proof.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, EYM formed in response to the tragedy of 9/11 and is the first affiliate chapter of the award-winning Boston-based community arts organization Express Yourself, Inc. This is EYM’s third year in its current studio space at 3331 W. Lisbon Ave., a location specifically chosen for the neighborhood’s high population of at-risk youth. Subscribing to a multi-arts philosophy, EYM works with 10 partner organizations to offer programming in music, dance and visual arts. Each school year, it employs interns and local artists, chooses a theme and engages participating youth in discussion, planning and the creation of performance and display pieces.

Describing the careful vetting process EYM employs when choosing partners, Vance emphasizes the “goal to have long-term relationships with the agencies served.” In this way, EYM is able to avoid becoming “just another transient factor” in the lives of youth already struggling with a lack of consistent support and positive opportunity.

The pop up galleries are the result of the visual art component of EYM’s programming over the last two years and reflect the themes “Lifted” (2011-12) and “Pathways” (2012-13). The recipient of one of the prestigious 2013 Mayor’s Design Awards, the installations are all located in garden spaces found at EYM’s headquarters, Bethune Academy (1535 N. 35th St.), Running Rebels Organization (1300A W. Fond du Lac Ave.), Mount Mary College (2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway) and St. Aemilian Lakeside (8901 W. Capitol Drive). The galleries, together, boast 18 double-sided panels, distributed among the five sites. Each panel features high-contrast portraits of youth—dancing, laughing, drumming and involved in all manner of EYM activities—mounted on sunken posts topped by whimsical bird sculptures. Several more portraits appear on the side of EYM itself, these featuring youth from Milwaukee County Juvenile Detention Center, faces turned away for confidentiality purposes, but highly expressive nonetheless. In a poignant display of solidarity, each site highlights images of youth from other partner organizations.

Reflecting on EYM’s own garden space, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by its high aesthetic quality and communal nature. With a “remembrance tree” built to memorialize youth lost to gun violence in Milwaukee, decorated benches for quiet reflection, a pathway in the shape of a West African symbol for toughness and adaptability and, of course, a bouquet of brightly colored youth portraits, EYM’s garden epitomizes the organization’s mission and impact. Vance notes, “We are not just making art for ourselves, but for everyone. If we work together, we are bettering the whole community.”

EYM is already beginning work on next year’s theme, “Fuel,” but interested parties will not have to wait until next spring to see the youth in action. Attend Washington Park’s July 31 installment of the “Wednesdays at the Shell Series” to catch ukulele, spoken word, song and dance performances by EYM youth along with the African-Reggae music of KT’s Universal Love Band, 6-8:30 p.m.

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