On a Tuesday afternoon, while the sun dipped below the horizon, the studios of the Artists For Humanity (AFH) EpiCenter in Boston glowed with the excitement and passion of over a hundred teenage artists at work. Some hunched over sketchbooks. Others toggled with tools on a computer screen. Still more stood before paint-splotched easels, hunting for that perfect hue to compliment their colorful canvases. And they were all getting paid.
Through employing teenagers to produce art and design services for businesses, AFH uses the power of creativity to shape a brighter future for its participants and the community as a whole. Operating since 1991, the organization has a profound impact on each individual that walks through its doors.
Co-Founder and Special Projects Director Jason Talbot believes that art is important for young people because it promotes a broader way of thinking during a particularly vulnerable age. It also provides useful skills such as problem-solving that transfer to other areas of life.
“First you must consume the world through your eyes before you can then reinterpret it as an artist,” Talbot said. “That process really helps people see more deeply, understand the world more clearly and visualize a pathway into their future.”
The 250 teenagers that AFH employs each year can choose to work in painting, graphic design, 3D art and design, photography or video. According to Talbot, the price of supplies can often block young people from being in the arts.
“The reality is that it’s very expensive and prohibitive to be in the arts,” Talbot said. “An easel can cost you two, three hundred bucks. With good design software, it could be thousands of dollars, so it can be really tough if that’s something you want to be a part of.”
As AFH offers a solution to this barrier, many students come in having little or no prior artistic experience. The teenagers learn as they work, guided by their mentors. Talbot said that his model is meant to replicate more of an apprenticeship than a teaching relationship.
“ are showing young people not how to be the best painter, but how to best do their painting: how to get their idea out, how to learn more about people who paint in their style and really work toward a finished product,” Talbot said.
Jonathan “Pineapple” Tejeda is a graphic design mentor, but when he first joined AFH eight years ago, he was a teenager and participant himself. He said that it took him some time to start taking the job seriously. Once he did, however, he described the joyous feeling of seeing his work come to life.
“The biggest change is I now have to help other kids feel that,” Tejeda said. “It’s changed into me helping other kids feel the same thing that I did, which is probably the most important thing to me.”
According to Tejeda, just like he was when he first started, the participants often come to work tired from a long day of school.
“Once in a while you get that kid that’s really eager to learn design and they’re just in it,” Tejeda said. “They’re always on and that’s cool. That makes it worth it.”
Meleeza Pires, a senior at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, has now painted at AFH for three years. Before starting there, she said that she did not think about going to college. Now, Pires is putting together her portfolio for art school with plans to become an art teacher.
“Since coming here, I really got out of my shell and people have been saying that I’m very outgoing,” Pires said. “I didn’t really see myself as that kind of person, so through here, and through the mentors and the coworkers, … you just find who you are.”
Talbot spoke of his own experiences as an artist growing up in Boston. He said that discovering the world that his talent opened up for him was a life-changing event.
“I felt like society and the media had a certain image of who I was, who I was going to be and what my station was here in this community,” Talbot said. “I felt like I was an artist, and it was my job to be critical of that system. It was incredibly empowering for me.”
Through AFH, Talbot has had the opportunity to spread this message to the youth of today. He believes that those who are in difficult positions can benefit immensely from participating in the arts.
“If you’ve experienced trauma or if you’ve been in a tough situation, somehow having a job, working on real-world projects, helps you stay focused on creating a brighter future for yourself and engaging with your education so that you have the credentials that you need to get a job that you would want,” Talbot said. “And so we’ve had some really great success in really helping kids at this age, where you know, you can end up in a jam.”
On top of mentoring teenagers in the arts, AFH also helps to keep students successful in school. According to its website, 100 percent of the organization’s high school seniors end up graduating on time. 100 percent also “have been accepted to post-secondary education or advanced vocational training.” During all four years of high school, Tejeda participated in the after-hours tutoring program.
“If you don’t meet the minimum grade requirement then you’re obligated to go to tutoring,” Tejeda said. “They employ you to make art and then they also help you with school. It’s like a double whammy.”
Pires described the community that AFH cultivates. She said that the program has helped her become more comfortable making mistakes and find joy within the process of painting.
“It’s just the support system and having people with you and encouraging you. And it’s not just your mentor who’s doing it—it’s other mentors, it’s other students,” Pires said. “You can also help other people if they ask you to help. It’s like your getting responsibility but you’re also giving responsibility.”
Talbot connected AFH to the larger community, pointing toward the wealth inequality in Boston.
“Boston is a world-class city,” Talbot said. “To have people sitting at this super height of wealth… and to still have kids living below the poverty line—kids with one parent or no parents, homeless—there’s just no reason for it to be that way.”
Talbot described how AFH’s ultimate mission is to channel the ability of art to connect people from different worlds.
“Art’s that bridge. Art’s what brings people together, where the richest and poorest can mingle. It’s a beautiful thing,” Talbot said, “We have that tool, we’ve mastered it, and we’re using it to bring people together.”