12:41pm

Thu April 18, 2013
Education

In D.C., Art Program Turns Boys' Lives Into 'Masterpieces'

Originally published on Thu April 18, 2013 8:26 pm

This is the third in a three-part series about the intersection of education and the arts.

Life Pieces to Masterpieces is an arts program that's not entirely about the art. It's an after-school program based in a struggling neighborhood in Washington, D.C., that teaches black boys and young men what they call "the four C's": "Connect, create, contribute, celebrate." From ages 3-25, they learn to express themselves by conceiving their paintings together. And those paintings will often reflect what's going on in their lives.

Maurice Kie, 26, is a mentor with Life Pieces. He started with the program as an "apprentice" when he was 9-years-old. "It's the whole thought that you went through something in your life and I support you," says Kie. "Or you went through something and I also embrace the same idea, canvas and paint brush."

Take a series the boys did called "Walk A Mile In My Shoes." Each painting is different, but they all have a pair of tennis shoes as the centerpiece. One painting is black with brightly colored flecks, like stars. The tennis shoes sort of emerge from the center. According to Kie, the shoes could represent anything from the death of a community member to a marker of drug territory or prostitution. But in the series, the shoes have a deeper meaning:

"For us it was more like, 'Could you walk a mile in my shoes?' " says Kie. "Could you experience some of the things that I experience? Could you embrace me as I experience these things?"

Kie often talks about the "brotherhood" that forms between boys who learn to talk about these experiences with each other at Life Pieces. The art, he says, is the means but not the end. They also write songs and poems together:

All these odds
If I do well in school, can I jump over jail?
If I pray every night, can I jump over this hell?
If I run past time, will time really tell?
Or will these shoes turn to boots
As I write this next poem from a cell?

Life Pieces to Masterpieces is in Ward 7, a neighborhood that has some bleak statistics. According to the Urban Institute, 23 percent of the young people in juvenile detention in D.C. come from Ward 7. About 40 percent of children live in poverty. Most of them are being raised by single mothers.

"The little boys and young men [have] been exposed to all types of horrific things," says Mary Brown, a co-founder of Life Pieces. "And being the natural little boys and young men that they are, they swallow it all."

So Brown and the mentors and an in-house counselor try to create an environment where the apprentices feel safe to express themselves.

At a recent brainstorming session — the first step in the art-making process at Life Pieces — a group of 11- and 12-year-olds are working on a project about goals.

Most of the boys dream of becoming pro athletes. Kie still does. "Myself, I just knew I was going to be a four-sport athlete," he says. The mentors at Life Pieces want the boys to feel that it's OK to share their aspirations with each other, even if it doesn't come naturally.

After more brainstorming and refining, the boys sketch out what their paintings might look like.

The style of art is distinct, and fairly simple to create. From scraps of canvas, the boys cut out shapes that will form whatever designs they've come up with. Those pieces are painted and then sewn onto larger canvases.

Life Pieces to Masterpieces has its own color wheel, with each color representing a positive value. For example, navy blue represents "giving." Brown is "discipline." Green is "meditation." Kie says the mentors teach the apprentices how to meditate.

"Our meditation process, it starts off with simply being quiet." Kie explains. "I think a lot of times, growing up in the city, everything is loud, everything is moving, everything is go, go, go, but no one actually sits down to be quiet. I think that's the first step, getting our guys to understand it's a time to reflect, a time to rejuvenate yourself."

Eleven-year-old Robert Taylor is an apprentice at Life Pieces. He recently did a painting that was part of Meditation Month.

"I made me sitting on clouds with candles around me, meditating." Robert says.

Robert's painting is both vibrant and tranquil. He used bright red, brown, yellow and white for himself and the clouds and candles. The background is a breezy turquoise. Robert has two brothers who are also in the program. Their father, Robert Taylor Sr., says Life Pieces is no ordinary after-school program.

"Life Pieces is doing something I've never seen before," Taylor Sr. says. "It's like they take a personal interest in your child, and we have young men teaching younger men how to be men. And I love it."

Life Pieces to Masterpieces feels very much like a family, and since its founding in 1996, there have been heartbreaks. Two apprentices were killed and two were sent to prison. But of the estimated 1,000 young men who've completed the program, nearly 100 percent have graduated high school and gone on to college or vocational school.

Brown considers every one of them an artist.

"The paintings are not the masterpieces," she says. "Our boys lives are the masterpieces."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This week, we've been exploring the intersection of education and the arts. Now, the story of an afterschool program in a struggling Washington, D.C. neighborhood. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, it uses art to teach African-American boys and young men to be more introspective.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: At Life Pieces to Masterpieces it's not really about the arts. It's about the process of learning to express yourself and it's a very collaborative process. Boys and young men conceive ideas for their paintings together and those paintings often reflect what's going on in their lives. Twenty-six-year-old Maurice Kie, a gentle giant at 6'4, is a mentor with Life Pieces.

He started with the program as an apprentice, and they're called, when he was 9 years old.

MAURICE KIE: It's the whole thought that you went through something in your life and I support you. Or you went through something in your life and I also been through some of the same situations. So we kind of embrace the same idea, and we kind of embrace the same actual canvas, paint and paint brush.

BLAIR: Take a series the boys did called "Walk A Mile In My Shoes." Each painting is different but they all have a pair of tennis shoes as the centerpiece. One painting is black with brightly colored flecks, like stars. The tennis shoes sort of emerge from the center.

KIE: Oftentimes, we have shoes hanging from power lines. They represent different things in the community. It could be the death, mostly the death of someone. It could be drug territory, prostitution. For us, it was more like, could you walk a mile in my shoes and could you embrace me as I experience these things?

BLAIR: So the arts is the means, but not the end. Kie often talks about the brotherhood that forms at Life Pieces between boys who learn to talk about these experiences with each other. They also write songs and poems together.

KIE: If I do well in school, can I jump over jail? If I pray every night, can I jump over this hill? If I run past time, will time really tell or will these shoes turn to boots as I write this next poem from a cell?

BLAIR: Life Pieces to Masterpieces is in Ward 7, a D.C. neighborhood where the statistics are bleak. According to the Urban Institute, nearly a quarter of the young people in juvenile detention in D.C. come from Ward 7. About 40 percent of children live in poverty. Most of them are being raised by single mothers. Mary Brown co-founded Life Pieces.

MARY BROWN: The little boys and young men have been exposed to all types of horrific things that's unspeakable. And being the natural little boys and young men that they are, they just kind of swallow it all.

BLAIR: So, Brown and the mentors and an in-house counselor try to create an environment where expressing yourself is encouraged.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So raise your hand if you have something that you dream to do, a goal.

BLAIR: The art-making process at Life Pieces begins with a brainstorming session.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) you have a goal? What's your goal?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: A professional basketball player.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Okay. Antwon(ph).

ANTWON: A football player.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I didn't hear you.

ANTWON: A NFL football player.

BLAIR: A group of 11 and 12-year-olds are working on a project about goals.

KIE: Eighty percent of the young men, I want to be a basketball player first. I want to be a football player second and then I want to be a scientist and then I want to be an agent. That's kind of how the community is. Myself, I just knew I was going to be a four-sport athlete.

BLAIR: And Maurice Kie says that's OK because learning to talk openly about your goals is a new concept for many of these children. After more brainstorming and refining, the boys sketch out what their paintings might look like.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a sketch (unintelligible) and then you have to add this piece. And then you have to add (unintelligible).

BLAIR: The style of art is distinct, and fairly simple to create. From scraps of canvas, the boys cut out shapes that will form whatever designs they've come up with. Those pieces are painted and then sewn on to larger canvases. Life Pieces has its own color wheel, with each color representing a positive value. For example, navy blue represents giving. Brown is discipline. Green is meditation. Maurice Kie says meditation is one of the things they teach.

KIE: Our meditation process, it starts off with simply being quiet. I think a lot of times, growing up in the city, everything is loud, everything is moving, everything is go, go, go, but no one actually just sits down to be quiet. And I think that's the first step, getting our guys to understand that it's a time to rejuvenate yourself.

BLAIR: Eleven-year-old Robert Taylor is an apprentice at Life Pieces. He recently did a painting that was part of Meditation Month.

ROBERT TAYLOR: We had to meditate, so I made me sitting on clouds with candles around me, meditating.

BLAIR: Taylor's painting is both vibrant and tranquil. He used bright red, brown, yellow and white. The background is a breezy turquoise. Taylor has two brothers who are also in the program. Their father, Robert Taylor Sr., says Life Pieces is no ordinary afterschool program.

ROBERT TAYLOR SR.: Life Pieces is doing something I've never seen before. It's like they take a personal interest in your child, and we have young men teaching younger men how to be men. And I love it.

BLAIR: Life Pieces to Masterpieces feels like a family. Since it was founded in 1996, there have been heartbreaks. Two apprentices were killed, and two were sent to prison. But of the estimated 1,000 men who've completed the program, nearly 100 percent have graduated high school and gone on to college or vocational school. Mary Brown considers every one of them an artist.

BROWN: The paintings are not the masterpieces. It's our boys' lives that really, in fact, are the masterpieces.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.