Spotlighting the Impact of Art at AIC

Nicole Sonsini rocks the mic every time she shows up to work. Her job is not easy but she does it with grace, pizzazz and a fine sense of humor. Nicole works daily, encouraging youth to try their best at finding room for expressive, self-reflective practices. Those who find themselves at the Achieving Independence Center (AIC), located right hephotore in Philadelphia, don’t usually think that making time to create art should be high on their priority list. These youth and young adults have other things on their mind, like aging out of the foster care system. This is a very real and daunting fear if you are doing it alone. Unfortunately for many of these 14-21 year old teens, the next stop is the street. The inevitable push-out-the-door cannot be avoided and is why each day is spent cramming the kind of survival skills and life lessons much of Philadelphia’s youth get to learn in a cohesive family environment, onto their full and overflowing plates.

It’s about plugging gaps and in Nicole’s words is why AIC is a “unique one stop shop for youth aging out of the foster care system.” The comprehensive resource center offers everything from life skills, housing, Planned Parenthood, mentoring and anything else their wellness team can think to offer. That’s where Nicole finds herself as the Art Coordinator; meeting youth where they are emotionally and encouraging them to paint, draw and sidewalk-art their feelings out. Processing how you feel is important, and it is her belief that art is one of the things they will need to survive on the other side as emotionally healthy adults. Walking in to AIC anyone can see that Nicole is an obvious favorite. Lives have been changed and dreams have been realized, thanks to her constant prodding to create.

CeCe is one such realization of the galvanizing spark AIC plants in each youth. “She is one of my star students,” says a glowing Nicole. An artist herself, Nicole lights up when students take her advice seriously. When CeCe first arrived she had a sharp eye and keen intuition, often rendering mirror images of faces with a pencil and paper. Yet the instability of the foster system and the looming date of her discharge kept her from seeing it as profitable. “Since her time here and especially in the ArtWell workshops, she has really taken ownership of her gift and sees it as a talent.” ArtWell has been presenting a monthly series at AIC for about a year. “It’s my favorite time of the month,” Nicole says, “ArtWell is unique in that the artists they send speak the same language as us social workers,” which is what the youth respond to. “Everyone is kind of on the same page and ArtWell has become an extension of what we do here.” Thanks to programs like AIC and ArtWell, CeCe is talking about going to college for the first time and Moore is one of the schools on her list. Not only has CeCe realized a dream, but her rocky course has been altered.


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Mining For Treasures in Our Youth


Isn’t it great to get an insider’s look at what our youth are doing? If you read our last blog on the fantastic work Joe Brenman did with the 7th and 8th grade classes at Bache Martin, then this bit of news might also appeal to you.

It is not unusual for one or two students to blossom in extraordinary ways after working with our skilled teaching artists. In fact we encourage our youth to try hard and risk failure in order to test their boundaries and find their strengths. This is the process of refining character. In our workshops, skill and talent take a back seat to this kind of learning. We are in the business of helping young minds become more ambitious and fearless in their creativity because we truly believe that our youth are at risk for greatness.

Joe discovered that one of his students at Bache Martin uniquely exhibited all of these skills and more. “Tehron stood out as an artist,” Joe said of his young apprentice. “He was very serious about the way he pursued the art things we did.” While working with Tehron, Joe discovered that the young man was passionate about the elective project, skilled at the mosaic making process and demonstrated leadership abilities that made the mural what it is today. Joe went on to say that Tehron, “had a very good design sense. He was really the one to lead everyone in designing the whole mural, and was polite even though he was very gifted.”

Joe wondered what Tehron would do with his gift and soon learned that he desired to keep working in the arts. For a while Tehron dreamt of becoming one of the youth to attend the Young Artist Workshop at Moore College of Art & Design, but tuition was difficult to make. Fortunately for Tehron, Joe knew that ArtWell board member, Natalie Payne, offers scholarships for students in the Philadelphia area to participate in the Young Artist Workshop. Recently she named one of the scholarships in honor of ArtWell. Joe recommended Tehron and he got the ArtWell scholarship and is now attending the 5 week long Young Artist Workshop at Moore.

It is an honor to see young minds like Tehron grow their wings and begin to take flight in our classes. Joe is very proud of him and wishes him well saying, “I hope he finds a way for doing his art and that he does it with his whole life.” You can see Tehron smiling above with Joe at his 8th grade graduation.

Posted in Arts, Featured | 1,143 Comments

Many Hands One Goal


Two beautiful murals have appeared in the entryway of Bache Martin Elementary School. Upon entering the school it is a marvel to see the masterpieces tall and glimmering before you, almost as if they were brought there by some kind of magic. Who would have known that those kids had all that power saved up in them, to create not one but two murals hung shining on their school walls for years to come? We call it magic because something very special happens when you give kids the space and tools to be their creative selves. Built on the energy of a 2012 Teacher-Artist Partnership (TAP) grant, in 2013 we were awarded a Long-Term Residency (LTR) grant from the Pennsylvania Council in the Arts. The funding ignited each piece of the puzzle, from the grant writing process to approaching Kristin Leubert and Joe Brenman. We were able to create  a way for the kids to succeed; and succeed they did. Exploring the  growth of a garden as a metaphor for their own journey into adulthood, their hands crafted the playful animals seen scampering under the trees. Their young minds imagined the poetry—lines of inspiration scrawled on the roots and feeding the tree. This Art of Growing Up mural did everything it set out to do. Encrusted in each tile and line of grout is a sliver of their stories and dreams of who they want to be when they grow up. Their youthfulness is the magic of this mural. Look what we have done together.

eigthInProcessIt all started with Joe Brenman, who when given the opportunity to work with Kristin Leubert and her 7th and 8th grade classes decided that he wanted give the students an opportunity to create the entire mural themselves. Joe is a prolific artist whose artwork has been featured all over Philadelphia. (Check out his website to see just how awesome he is!) and Joe has one of the biggest hearts we at ArtWell have come across. Setting himself up as a guide, he led the students through the yearlong project. Joe’s gift to these lucky youth was the chance to plan, sculpt and erect the mosaic murals that you see here. Aided by retired school administrator Carol Spann-Tyson, he even let them cut the tiles and draw on the walls. This is just one of the many ways that ArtWell is committed to inspiring hope through art and invigorating the learning experience for Philadelphia’s youth. To see the entire project unfold and read the step by step process these amazing young people followed, just Click Here. The truth is that there’s always more magic in all of us and in all of our kids and it’s just waiting to be invited out.

To make a donation to support more young people and ArtWell projects like this Click Here.

Posted in Arts | 18 Comments

Give Yourself The Gift Of Reflection

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

            –Oliver Wendall

Every youth who encounters ArtWell gets the opportunity to grow as an individual and explore their creativity. There isn’t a child out there who isn’t excited about opening up on the page, through a painting or getting lost in a ceramics exercise. These self-reflection activities introduce us to new ways of learning. They increase personal empowerment through problem solving allowing us to re-energize and experience renewal. Isn’t it easy to see that self-reflection is key to education?

Art Positive Reflections
Why do we use art to help us reflect on ourselves? Creating even the smallest art project calls attention to your natural reflection process and gives you access to both answers and questions you wouldn’t arrive at otherwise. Take for instance the act of writing poetry. Putting your thoughts on paper in a way that the words don’t have to align themselves into sentences can be liberating and inspire all of those balled up emotions to finally come out with clarity. Art inspired reflections provide a safe way to process and analyze your experiences. Creating while working through emotions can give meaning to your experiences. Not to mention the risk taking, trial and error process force you to use critical thinking. Finally ending with a physical product after your reflection can create a sense of accomplishment that is crucial to the risk-reward of putting yourself out there. Create a habit of appreciating yourself. We have seen this process sculpt the identities of thousands of youth and it’s as easy as applying the crafty concept as little as 15 minutes in each day.

Try It Yourself
Summer is the perfect time to introduce new habits into your daily regimen. Keep in mind that stepping into self-reflection mode can save you a great deal of stress and leave you with a journal you made yourself. Consider this cool idea for your next project. After creating this reflection journal let the blank pages inspire to keep on writing maybe 15 minutes a day.

Posted in Arts, Featured | 1,429 Comments

Begin Again With Summer

It was a forever winter and summer is here! F. Scott Fitzgerald has captured our summer hopes and dreams in one spirited line:

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”

photo 2It is about this time in our programming-roll-a-dex when school based workshops come to a close. Every summer we send our students off with well wishes and giant hopes that they will seek communities that build them up, that they will continue to grow, thrive and create. In one culmination after the next, we attempt to wrap up the feeling of each class as one final farewell. This celebration involves a great deal of percussion, often some dancing and a chance for those students who were involved to share the work they created. Whether a child has experienced We The Poets, Heartspeak or Art of Growing Up for the first time, they will have traversed an emotional journey encountering a few emotions, new thoughts and feelings for the first time. This is self-discovery and it is brought to life through engagement with the arts. The student who only awoke to the sound of her own poetry will finally step forward and read what’s been on her heart.

photo (1)

However silly, however serious, the point is being that she is excited enough about her work to share it. From beginning readers to overcoming stage fright, longings for peace or dreams to lead better lives, our youth in their bare excitement to perform overcome their fear factors and engage with their classmates in one final hurrah. Let the music ensue, the drum beat roll, and the laughter and excitement fall quiet when they pass through their Hope Flag Threshold. It really is an incredible sight, and one of the truest gifts as educators to see spring semester rolling into the open ended adventure of summer.



Posted in Arts, Featured | 994 Comments

On Her Shoulders

Maya-Angelou-Quotes-2I think we released a collective sigh of grief when the news flashed up on or eReaders and smart phones. Maya Angelou’s passing came as a devastating surprise and has left us–activist, writer and artist alike–wondering what a world without Maya could feel like.

One of our nations most revered poet activists disappeared behind the veil of history, that elusive ether, and I wonder  if poetry will still feel the same. Have all the words to write with and energy to fight gone and slipped behind the veil with her?

Whenever we lose something, let alone someone, it is a natural reaction to dwell on what was once and is no longer. Yet, Maya Angelou left us with a few torches to carry onward. It must be a learned response not to count what was lost but to turn our attention onto the statement her life made. What does it mean to us? What can we do to carry on her legacy? Many a biographer and journalist has already begun to encapsulate and make sense of it. What is between the bookends of her life may be summed up by one of her famous quotes. “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But, people will not forget how you made them feel.”  We will want to remember this as we move forward in the days, months and years without her. Simply put, Maya’s words make us feel, just as great art is supposed to do.

My hope for all of us is that we continue to feel. At ArtWell, it’s a continual joy to witness our youth express what they feel through their poetry, their art, their movements and sounds. May we all feel Maya’s light as we continue using art, poetry and music to challenge today’s inequalities.

Posted in Arts, Loss, Poetry, Thought Leaders | 989 Comments

What Is Happiness?

The school year is coming to a delightful close, and with it, so are quite a few of our programs. We have many questions for the youth who pass through our curricula and have generated evaluation surveys that collect all kinds of data that will later be translated into reports with percentages, numbers and etc… Yes we want to quantify and know what the students learned, how it made them feel and if they are likely to use arts as a tool of reflection again, and deep within the bones of this organization what we also want to know is if our programs made them happy, lighter on their feet, a bit more like a child should feel. You get the drift.

Great men and great women have taken a stab at defining just exactly what happiness is. Mahatma Gandhi believed it to be symmetry. “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Stephen Chbosky thought it was simply a feeling. A feeling as raw churningly real a stomach ache. “There’s nothing like deep breaths after laughing that hard. Nothing in the world like a sore stomach for the right reasons.” And Marcel Proust believes that happiness can be fleeting and we should praise the ones who tickle us with it’s virtues. “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

But the best we know of happiness at ArtWell is expression. Happiness is about what comes out of the pen and onto the paper, out of the mouth and into the air, straight from the brush and onto the mosaic tile. For us, happiness is at the conception of creativity. It is a celebration! It could not be expressed better than by a choir of crooning children.

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Sweet Gum Bridge- Sara Graybeal

Sweet Gum Bridge

My daddy went to Mississippi the summer of ’64.  Main street smelled like iced tea and cigarettes, took him back to growing up in Appalachia.  When it rained, hot grass sighed like a frying pan under water, and he could feel Earth’s heart rising when fire burned into his car mirror late at night.  He pumped the gas to seventy, eighty-five, eyes staring into darkness and prayed their pick-up trucks could not handle the speed.  Sometimes the nearest inn was run by blacks only for blacks their heads made silhouettes in the upstairs window when he pounded saying I am fighting for you.  By the end he wondered what anyone was fighting for

in the low beams nails rusted porch out front with two rocking chairs though one is always empty now his wife is gone, my daddy took the empty one and wondered how she’d rocked herself, how many times she’d sunk into that familiar frame and cried.  The old man would not tell him.  In the yard grass green and overgrown, weeds laced with dandelions in a yellow web.  The old man said there’s thistles underneath but I never do recall where, they’ll spike you good if you’re not careful.  They drank iced tea and watched clouds pile against magnolia trees.  The old man said you ain’t seen nothing till you seen it storm in Mississippi big fat drops warm as tears and soft as butterflies, you ought to sit out the rain no sense driving back to town in this.  My daddy said I’m sorry sir to repeat myself but let me tell you once more I am with the Justice Department we are here to record injustices against you the people of Mississippi I give you my word whatever you say I will write down send back to Washington maybe make your life a little better, the old man said don’t it move

quicker than anything, look there.  Narrow strong the river flowed around his yard and down into the woods, and sure enough there were drops in the water, pinpoints of something happening.  Sky black above the trees my daddy said I have never seen a storm blow up so fast.  The old man said then you ain’t from Mississippi though you talk like you are and my daddy said he wasn’t from so far away.  He said sir have you lived here all your life and the old man grinned tobacco and holes where teeth should be saying not yet not unless you’ve seen me die and go to heaven.  My daddy laughed and drank his tea watched wind whip across the yard grab hold of the laundry and shake it like a woman’s skirt, the old man said she always got the laundry off the line before a storm not like me I just wear wet clothes ain’t so bad once you start.  Drops like bullets on the tin roof and my daddy sat up said sir I appreciate your time and I’ll be going now as long as there is nothing you want to tell me, the old man said wait a minute

but the minute stretched out and out until it nearly popped and my daddy saw fear washing out his eyes.  The old man looked out at the laundry and down at boots splitting open against the dusty boards.  He said I don’t have anything to tell and my daddy said well it was a pleasure to meet you and he put on his hat and jacket and said don’t you laugh at me when I get soaked by this rain.  The old man tried to smile but there were only holes where teeth should be.  My daddy stood at the edge of the porch breathing damp woods and all the thistles in the yard, and he walked through warm pounding down to the bridge across the river.  Soft boards nails bent from how many thunderstorms and not a bit changed he took a step and another felt the bridge shudder gathering strength and he heard

wait.  The old man clutched the porch, boots fumbled to reach the yard then overalls and hat soaked through down to the bridge.  He met my daddy in the middle.  Daddy’s eyes mockingbird gray and the old man saw that he believed in being there in that minute stretched to breaking above a river rushing to get somewhere else.  Old man put a hand to the soggy rope and said this here I built it when I was seventeen, keeps fixing to break but it still holds on I call it Sweet Gum Bridge.  Cheeks smeared with rain he said I’m sorry seeing pickup trucks shining into windows late at night disappearing too quick for his old bones to get up and find the shotgun, heart beating fast as he wished his legs would go, seeing yards gone up in flames the shape of Christ Almighty and men sitting all day outside the barber shop watching the voting booths seeing daddy and granddaddy not much changed and water rushing under his feet.  He said I’m sorry but

you haven’t seen the way these woods can listen, you don’t know what it means to say injustice on this bridge.  I’m sorry.  And daddy felt wetness through the bone and said maybe we’re not supposed to speak today, maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Said write your story I’ll write mine too and maybe someday when we’re dead and buried in magnolia sweet gum woods, maybe the stories will meet up on this bridge shake hands and have a real talk.  Old man said yeah or maybe they’ll just fish together, look over the edge and down as the river flows on by.

 -Sara Graybeal

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Jerron Corley- Poem


Often sitting next to me is the spirit of  what once was peace.
His hands are interlinking with mine as his whispered desires for me to take his place blow in the wind.
In this society,
we don’t have to be afraid to deliver a necessary message.
We have walked this earth with knowledge that peace is like leading a blind horse to a pasture.
He can smell the grass but he doesn’t know his way to it.
We are hanging around street corners,
wasting away open opportunities to oppress the oppressors that are oppressing the oppressed.
These fists will not act, these whips will not crack,
these bullets will not attack, but it’s not time to relax so we must…
Speak for that brother you lost on the street corner.
Speak for that sister you found exposed crying in her bedroom.
Speak for that friend that told you he was going to kill himself.
Speak for the children who go to sleep hungry.
Speak for the men and women living on concrete.

-Jerron Corley

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Fun Quotes On Creativity

Here are some fun quotes on creativity this morning. artwell-exhibit-gregg

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
― Scott Adams

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” 
― Kurt Vonnegut

“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not. ”
― Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso: Metamorphoses of the Human Form : Graphic Works, 1895-1972


“You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.” ― Albert Einstein 

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
― Sylvia PlathThe Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” 
― Martha Graham

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“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
― C.S. LewisMere Christianity

Enjoy Your Monday!
- The Dream Team

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