Teens get paid to make art — and a good impression | St. Louis Public Radio

Teens get paid to make art — and a good impression

Sep 3, 2015

Updated 3:31 p.m., Jan. 26 with photo in slideshow of finished sculpture - St. Louis teenagers are using pliers and hammers as well as paintbrushes and pens to make money by making art.

They’re creating coat racks from bicycle parts, sculptures from sticks and canvases from rain barrels. It’s all through a program called St. Louis ArtWorks, now celebrating its 20th year and a new home on Delmar Boulevard.

ArtWorks offers a $6-an-hour stipend to underserved youth between the ages of 14 and 19 in summer and after-school programs. But it’s about more than just the art, according to program manager Jessica Graham.

“It’s about learning work skills, communication skills, creating thinking skills,” Graham said. “If someone can look someone in the eye and tell a little bit about themselves, then I feel like we’ve helped build their identity.”

‘You never know’

This summer’s contingent of ArtWorks sculpture students began their program with a trip to Queeny Park in West County for some inspiration. Sixteen-year-old Tyson Johnson was among the two-dozen-or-so kids toting sketchpads and pencils.

Tyson Johnson on far right with braids at Queeny Park with a group of ArtWorks sculpture apprentices
Credit Provided by Amy Helper Welch

“We’re going to be making a sculpture from metal so this will be a first time for me,” Johnson said.

The teens were challenged to design something that pays tribute to healthy rivers and water systems. In a natural setting, rainfall flows through a watershed that supports fish, bugs and snakes, according to Steve Herrington with the Missouri Nature Conservancy.

Steve Herrington of the Nature Conservancy explains the concept of a watershed to ArtWorks sculpture students.
Credit Nancy Fowler/St. Louis Public Radio

“It supports life, in general. And when you turn on your tap, it’s supporting your life,” Herrington said.

Johnson’s own life has been a series of opportunities, thanks to the ambitions of his working-class parents. He’s the youngest of six in a family living in north St. Louis city. But he’s had a great education, through the KIPP Inspire Academy middle school and Grand Center Arts Academy high school.

Tyson Johnson working on ceramic leaves in the ArtWorks classroom
Credit Nancy Fowler/St. Louis Public Radio

Last year, a teacher recommended he apply to ArtWorks. Johnson was accepted, and in his first stint last fall, he joined a video art group. Even though he considers himself more of a street artist and comic-book designer, it doesn’t hurt to add an extra skill.  

“You never know when it will pop up that you might actually need it,” Johnson said.

ArtWorks apprentices also add to their abilities — and earn part of their keep — by making various items to sell. These include coat racks and coat hangers fashioned out of bicycles. It’s not easy to pry rusty parts off well-worn bikes. They worked on a single bike for nearly an hour before they succeeded in wrenching off the handlebars.

“Finally!” Johnson said. “We did it.”

See how ArtWorks gauges success and watch this summer’s apprentices disassemble donated bicycles, in this video. (Story continues, below.)

‘It’s for everybody’

Back at Queeny Park, Johnson sketched a dragonfly design then changed it to a turtle on a rock, as Herrington guided the teenagers through trees and over bridges.

Later, though, the group decided on a different idea: an owl, for the park’s Owl Creek. Was that OK with Johnson?

A sketch and a mock-up of the Queeny Park sculpture designed by ArtWorks apprentices
Credit Provided by St. Louis ArtWorks

“Yeah. We all get adjusted to what everybody sees fit. It’s for everybody,” Johnson said.

The design was then sent to a metal fabricator. It’s scheduled to be installed sometime this month.

A few weeks ago, Johnson began a new year of classes at Grand Center Arts Academy. He applied for a fall 2015 ArtWorks apprenticeship and recently received a reply.

“I got it,” Johnson said.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @Nancy FowlerSTL