Paintbrush in hand, Hannah dabs jet black paint onto a square canvas. The woman she’s painting has blood orange hair and yellow lips and eyebrows. Her skin is coloured mauve. She tells me she’s painting a portrait of herself by inverting all the colours, except her red locks. The white rat, which rests on her chest in the painting, is actually black and back at home.
“I don’t really leave the house—ever,” she explains as she touches up the eyelashes with a few more strokes. But today, as rare as it is, she did.
We’re talking inside an old tramway substation in Paddington that now houses an art centre called Hands on Art. A number of artworks are displayed on the white brick walls. The space spans three levels and has a loft-like feel: capacious and warmly industrial. Inside these walls nurturing creativity is a foregone conclusion.
Hannah, along with a handful of other teenagers, is participating in an eight-week program that helps motivate and inspire young people through art. The Youth Artworks Mentoring Program, run by Hands on Art, directly targets 14 to 18 year olds who are disengaged from school and traditional learning environments, and who may have low self-esteem or trouble navigating social situations.
Hannah says she doesn’t like to venture out much because she dislikes the way she feels people judge her. Inside the substation though, it’s a different story.
“Every Wednesday I get to come in here and I get to paint and I get to talk to people who like what I like,” she tells me, her gaze still focused on the bright colours in front of her. “And I don’t have to worry about people judging me for the way I dress or the way I speak or the way I paint or I draw.”
“Because everyone here is learning in their own way.”
The students come from a variety of backgrounds. Some attend private schools, some attend flexible schools and some don’t attend anywhere at all. Flexible schools are alternative learning centres for students who, due to various psychological, social or other issues, have struggled to flourish in a traditional school environment. Seven hundred and eighty-nine students are currently enrolled across the twelve flexible schools in Queensland.
Last year, Hands on Art received a $23,000 grant from the St. George Foundation to run a pilot of the program. This year, they were able to continue on with a second term.
Kara Dunnage, the Youth Artworks Program Manager, says coming to the program one day a week gives the students a break from the stressors at school and home that often trigger troublesome emotional responses. Here, she maintains, they are given the freedom to express who they are, regardless of how they dress or what piercings they may have.
“All those little details actually matter a lot to young people,” she points out, “and here they get a way to express who they are, not only in the way they relate to their peers but in the way they relate to the adults around them.”
One reason some young students feel disconnected may be their financial conditions at home. Twenty-one percent of children and young people in Australia live in households experiencing economic hardship, which puts many of them at risk of poverty, according to a 2008 report. The report states that as a result “they are less able to access services and have fewer participatory opportunities.” Coming up with creative solutions to get young people involved and inspired again can save them from even greater problems down the road.
Kara notes that many of the teenagers in her program have been victims of bullying, are socially anxious, depressed or have difficult family situations. Creating art offers them a much needed outlet, says Kara. “In this space they feel accepted by their peers, where as they may not have that experience at school.”
Kara’s passion for the program extends beyond the art—she is desperate to see them succeed in school and in their lives that follow. Her experience as a youth worker strengthens her ability to mentor the teens, often on a individual basis. She encourages them to stay in or return to school and even counsels them through issues they may be having with teachers or classmates.
But can spending a day painting, sculpting and making collages really instill any practical skills for the world beyond the art studio?
Absolutely—according to Ayesha Dey, a bubbly 19 year old who participated last term. Now she comes along as a peer youth mentor to the students in the current program. Today she’s experimenting with bright pastels, a departure from her favourite medium of charcoal on paper.
Ayesha lived with her mother until she was 13, when she entered the foster care system. She now lives on her own in public housing and is slowly starting to continue her education at Albert Park Flexible School in Milton. She says the reason she wanted to go back to school was to establish a routine of doing something with her days, instead of nothing. “If I do nothing I just go downhill,” she explains. For this reason she also volunteers with the Create Foundation.
She describes creating art as a productive distraction that allows her to focus her attention on something other than her daily problems. Before coming to The Youth Artworks Mentor Program Ayesha wasn’t very good at meeting new people. Working on her art in a group setting helped her develop appropriate social behaviour, something she admits she struggled with in the past.
But the crucial life skill that will keep on helping Ayesha is the invaluable lesson of trying her hand at something outside her comfort zone.
“If you do one thing and it makes you feel fantastic why not try something else?” she says with a smile.
And that’s the point of the Hands on Art youth program: to provide young people with a safe and supportive space where they can be pushed through the fear of trying something new. And in the end, the hope is that they will have gained the confidence, and have the desire, to succeed in their lives outside the walls of the substation.
An exhibition showcasing the art created by The Youth Artworks Mentor Program was held from 6pm to 8pm on Friday, 14 June at: Hands On Art, 150 Enoggera Terrace, Paddington 4064.
The Youth Artworks Mentor program is supported by the Lang Park PCYC, which has been an important partner in keeping the program going.