This school year, students who are in danger of not graduating from high school, explored the world of art through the innovative Dreams Project program, provided by the San Benito Arts Council and funded by a $39,000 Jump StArts grant from the California Arts Council.
The program began five years ago, inspired by a 2010 project at Juvenile Hall, which resulted in creating a mural that spelled out the word “Dreams.”
“Within each letter of the mural, there were all kinds of images of people and objects that were important to the students who designed it,” said Jennifer Laine, executive director of the San Benito County Arts Council. “That mural became the inspiration for the current program as we try to make art more accessible to youth in juvenile justice settings and continuation schools. We really see potential in those students. They are extremely creative and a lot of fun to work with.”
Local artists are provided with residencies to instruct youths at Juvenile Hall, Pinnacles Community School, San Andreas Continuation, and Santa Ana Opportunity School in painting, creating murals, making music, sculpting—even coming up with designs to put on skateboards and sneakers.
Before the pandemic, all of the instruction was done on-site throughout the year. It included special one-day events, such as a visit from the music team Common Sound, which collaborated with the students.
“During COVID, of course, everything shut down,” Laine said. “It took us a little time, but we were able to pivot to virtual classes, which allowed us to scale up our participation. We typically had programs twice a week, but we increased our program to four days a week. With so many programs shut down because of the pandemic, the youth in Juvenile Hall, in particular, did not have access to much of anything.”
Heidi Jumper has been with the San Benito Arts Council for four years and is currently their community engagement and marketing manager. She is also a teacher in the Dreams Project program.
“It has been a unique opportunity that I have enjoyed,” Jumper said. “I have been able to spend more time with my students and build stronger relationships and trust with them. We have also been able to present them with a more comprehensive fine art program that they would get in a traditional high school setting.”
The process begins with conversations about the fundamentals of art to discover the best approach for helping students express themselves.
“I don’t want to go in with assumptions about what the students want to learn,” Jumper said. “I like to get feedback as to what direction we can go towards or what they want to experiment with. Through asking them questions and hearing their opinions about things, we can tailor a project that is specific to what their interests are.”
One of the projects Jumper taught this year, along with her husband, Sylas Jumper, was on street art, which ended with creating murals made up of student’s names in graffiti-style signatures.
“We started the sessions with a focus on different kinds of lettering,” Jumper said. “That is something we can all be successful with because letters are something we do every day. Then we move on to form and shape, taking them and making them block lettering or bubble lettering, making them three-dimensional. Each student worked on a name or a word they wanted to share using all the elements we talked about.”
As the students grasped the fundamentals, Jumper arranged for one-day online workshops with guest artists, including a class on portraiture with painter Roan Victor, a spray paint demonstration by muralist Sean Boyles, and a lesson in music as a vehicle for change by the Sound Impact organization.
Exposure to professional artists also gave the students something to consider as a vocation after they graduate.
“The artists talked about how they got to be artists and the different kinds of work they do as a career,” Jumper said. “It is exciting for the students to think beyond high school because you don’t always consider art as a long-term career opportunity. It gives them a way to think about possibilities for their futures.”
The program will resume as in-person sessions once COVID restrictions are lifted, but Jumper is pleased with how the remote sessions went.
“This was a great opportunity,” Jumper said. “I got to be with them all year, and we could have these special residencies rather than swapping out teachers. We got a lot of good feedback from the students who are anxious to do it again next year, and we’ve had teachers tell us they can see the benefit in art exploration and art as a medium for creative action. It has been helpful for the students as a way to expand their ability to express themselves.”
This year, the Dreams Project program was provided to 20 students in selected classrooms in grades 6-12 at Santa Ana Opportunity School and all 46 students in the 12th grade class at San Andreas High School. Interested Juvenile Hall youths had a chance to participate during their stay.
“These students show tremendous potential,” Laine said. “We do what we can to help the students express themselves, and collaborate with their peers to better get in touch with themselves. If we can get them involved in the arts and get them passionate about their ideas and imagining their future, I think that is a really positive thing.”
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