At the end of her third year in high school, Ivy* sewed a quilt corresponding to the theme “belonging.”
The creation’s perimeter is made of pink, purple and blue swatches — a nod to the bisexual flag. It surrounds a smaller, brown square that represents the African-American community and frames a rainbow-colored female symbol at the piece’s center.
“I wanted to display all the communities that I felt like I was a part of,” said Ivy, 17, who will begin her fourth year at Bodine High School for International Affairs in Northern Liberties.
The quilt displayed at the end of last school year in the annual culminating exhibition for participants in the Young Artist Program, a free after-school program for 12 LGBTQ high school students run by Fishtown-based artist collective and nonprofit The Art Dept. When school is in session, participants — hailing from Franklin Learning Center, Bodine High School and Philadelphia High School for Girls — meet at the organization Monday-Thursday for snacks, homework help, college prep, personal guidance and art instruction from queer teaching artists.
Young Artist Program launched in 2017 after a similar project focusing on queer youth and issues of domestic violence housed at family-oriented nonprofit Lutheran Settlement House lost funding said Carmel Brown, co-director of the initiative. Located in the same neighborhood, the six multidisciplinary artists operating The Art Dept. collective decided to offer a new alternative and begin the after-school operation for a cohort of second-year high school students, some of whom participated in the previous group.
The original Young Artist Program students have remained in the program since. This year’s curriculum begins Sept 16.
Brown, a queer woman, said it’s been interesting to watch the students formulate their worldviews over the last couple years.
“My hope is for them to be able to have a space where they can really have access to know where they’re at as far as their value systems,” she added, “and also providing visibility so that they don’t feel like they have to perform their identities out there in the world.”
Young Artist Program participants attend a rally in support of the trans community.
The average day at the program is always changing.
Facilitators encourage students to play a hand in leading day-to-day programming, so the group may spend an afternoon discussing current events in Philadelphia or attending rallies on social issues.
“Our job is to meet them where they’re at,” Brown said. “Sometimes they just want to process their day and decompress, sometimes they want to work on art, sometimes they want to have a conversation.”
But an ever-present hallmark of the program is letting the students learn from artists from the surrounding community and The Art Dept. who are of various marginalized communities, Brown told PGN.
“As young people being exposed to that, they’re able to see people who look like them, accept themselves and give each other respect,” she added. “They bring that into their learning, how to advocate for themselves, how to have hard conversations.”
Group discussions often center on issues including domestic violence, accepting identities, coming out to family members and dealing with bullying.
Participating in Young Artist Program has helped Ivy better express her queer identity, she said.
“Outside of that space, I kind of have to censor myself, the parts in me that I can’t express because I don’t know how it’ll be received in certain places,” Ivy added. “But in this space, it’s safe for me to be me and near people who can relate to the things that I say because it’s stuff that they’re going through also.”
Young Artist Program participants work on vision boards at The Art Dept.
CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia and CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia sponsor The Art Dept., Brown said, and the Young Artist Program runs off of this funding, alongside donations. On Aug. 24, the group will hold a fundraising barbeque in the garden of New Kensington Civic Development Corporation from 5-10 p.m.
As the Young Artist Program students enter their final year of high school, the group has toured area colleges like Moore College of Art & Design and the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. At the end of this year’s curriculum, students will receive $500 stipends to help cover educational costs they encounter.
Though the inaugural participants are aging out of the initiative, both Brown and Ivy are hopeful for the Young Artist Program’s future. Brown said she is looking into bringing first-year high schoolers into this year’s programming and encouraging mentorship from their older peers.
“The support system that I had in this program will still continue through the rest of my life,” Ivy said. “Even if we can’t physically be there, these people will still always be here.”
First name has been used to protect the privacy of a minor.