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  • Words and Photos by John Domine

Artolution in the East Village

Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is not only known as an incredible artist in his own right, but also as a huge advocate of engaging youth in community-building projects centered around art. Together with fellow artist Max Frieder, they created Artolution, a non-profit which strongly believes in public arts projects as a tool for social change.

Their mission is to facilitate projects around the world to connect diverse groups of people to address common social issues through collaborative art making. Such issues they have dealt with in this process include armed conflict as a result of war, trauma from any number of reasons, both physical and emotional, and social marginalization, as experienced by refugees and other groups across the globe.

But rather than just going in to paint with the people and then leave, Artolution strives for sustainability in their efforts by training local artists who continue to facilitate such projects, and maintain the positive actions that were put in place to create real change in their communities.

Their latest project brought them to New York City's East Village, where they worked with students from two schools, each with specific qualities which made for a unique fit under the Artolution umbrella. The Harvey Milk School is an LGBTQ+ school, where a majority of its students are gay or transgender and have dealt with the ongoing stigma associated with such designation. Students from the other school, the Manhattan School for Career Development, have also endured hardship, as all have various degrees of disability (e.g. Down Syndrome and Autism), for which they require on-going classroom and extra-curricular support. Bringing these two groups together to create a mural was quite an endeavor, and the results were stunning.

I had a chance to talk with Joel about Artolution, the project with the students in the East Village, and what we can expect from them in the future.

John Domine: Tell me a bit about your organization Artolution, how it came about and the specific goals or mission of the work.

Joel Artista: We strongly believe in the community-based public arts as a tool for social change, and it really is a way for vulnerable youth and communities around the world to tell their own story, to shape their own narrative, and to create their own identity. And so we work especially with youth and communities that have experienced conflict, have experienced trauma, are marginalized, including refugees in camps and refugee communities in the Middle East and in other places around the world. We also work with people in “informal settlements”, aka slums and shantytowns, in places like India and Kenya and Brazil, as well as many, many other types of communities around the world.

I’ve been doing this kind of work on my own, and Max Frieder has been doing this sort of community work for a long time (9-10 years each), separately, and when we met 5-6 years ago, and we started doing some projects together, we realized we had a very common vision for this work, which was to create something sustainable. Not just show up in a community and do a project and have this amazing experience and then have it be over, right, and just end it.

Around 2013-14 we were really impressed with some artists we met, some Syrian refugees in the camps in Jordan, and we realized this could be something that could be sustainable if they had the opportunity to continue these projects in their own communities. And this could really impact thousands of children and people in the camps. But, there was no infrastructure for that and no funding for that. And so that was really the inspiration for wanting to start an organization.

It’s really been a journey that we’ve been on to start this organization. About a year and a half ago, we incorporated as a non-profit, but it had been in the works for quite a while. Now, we are official and are really starting to expand and build on our mission to start different arts-based programs, and specifically public arts-based programs, such as murals and community sculptures and performance arts in these different communities, led by the local artists.

JD: You have done a lot of work internationally. How is the latest wall in the East Village different from the work you have done in the past, and why was it important for you to do this project? In addition, how did you choose the schools to work with on this project?

JA: This project was a really unique one. The thing that was so amazing about it was the two different populations that we were working with. We had the Harvey Milk School, which they really focus on teenagers who, most of whom are LGBT. And even those who aren’t, they have had a really hard time being bullied or struggled in their past high schools. So, Harvey Milk is a place where they can form this really close-knit community that supports them. It was inspiring to get to work with them. And you also have the Manhattan School for Career Development, which focuses on teenagers with a variety of different disabilities, specifically Autism, Down Syndrome or other learning disabilities. So, then bringing these two schools together was really interesting and a really unique experience. We really loved working with the kids and just the whole process.

This goes perfectly along with our work because you have these young people who have had society and other people put labels on them that are often very negative and putting limitations on them. Instead, saying we are going to identify ourselves and we are going to tell our own story and we are going to do it through this giant public mural.

The way this project came about was actually through the amazing partnership we have with Paul Hastings Law Firm in New York. And they have just given us an insane amount of pro bono hours and have helped us with so many things. They are also big supporters of Harvey Milk High School. So, they decided last year, when we did a big event with them and gave a presentation for their lawyers and clients, that they wanted to present us with a donation.

But, rather than just giving us money, they gave us a project that they would fund, an Artolution project in New York, and since they were already connected to Harvey Milk High School, they wanted to include that school. But, Harvey Milk does not have an outdoor wall that could be used. They are sister schools with the Manhattan School for Career Development. And they had a wall, so it ended up becoming a partnership between the two schools.

JD: The mural is absolutely amazing and I love seeing the individual stories represented. Tell me about the process and the different components of the wall and how they relate to the students who worked with you to create this masterpiece.

JA: To start, all of the youth packed into the library of the school and we came up with a ton of different ideas. Everyone drew sketches and we guided them through this process of designing their own mural. The larger elements come from brainstorming that first day, and throughout the process you notice there are all of these smaller details and paintings within the larger painting that each student created throughout the course of the mural. A few examples: there is a large character who is painting and there are little characters coming off the paintbrush. The central part has puzzle pieces. One of the students wanted to make sure we include something about Autism. Puzzle pieces are often used as a symbol for Autism and Autism awareness, so the paintbrush is a symbol for focusing on things, and the student is focusing on painting. People with Autism often have these specialized focuses. Then there is a very colorful LGBT/gay/trans/pride symbol in the middle, which is a student from Harvey Milk which has a rainbow flag going through his face.

The students were chosen by the schools, and there was a lottery for the students who were interested in having there image on the wall. I told them I do some photo-realism, and would like to paint their likeness. We wanted it to be fair. On the left side (of the mural) you have the Statue of Liberty. One of the students, also from Harvey Milk, is the Statue of Liberty. But with our own twist, reaching out and being very welcoming, and just putting it in a modern context.

Then there is also a phoenix, which the students came up with as a symbol of rising from the ashes, having a second chance in life, and this rebirth of sorts. We told them about the Foundstrument Soundstrument, which is actually a program that was created by my partner, Max Frieder, which is basically a percussion instrument created from found objects and trash.

We have done this type of thing in many contexts. In Dominican Republic, we did a Boatstrument. This one is a Birdstrument. And this is the first time we have incorporated it into the mural, rather than as a free-standing piece, and I think it worked out well, so we are going to continue to explore that. All the pieces actually came from the school, broken keyboards, monitors, and other discarded items.In the unveiling ceremony, the students had a chance to play the instrument and it became a really fun, interactive piece.

On the far right of the mural, students (Alexis and Michael) from the Manhattan School are portrayed, overlapping, looking with hope toward the future.

JD: The Unveiling Ceremony was a huge success. It was very emotional for some of the students to see such beauty created by and for them. As artists and mentors, how does this make you feel?

JA: The unveiling ceremony is an important part of the project. It really is an honor for the students to see people coming out to see their work. And some of the students speak about the mural and the process. Those who were painted in the mural were very proud to be part of such a beautiful wall. One student’s mother teared up, not believing that her daughter’s face was on the wall. It’s just very special. Usually we just see famous heroes from history. And if you are just some kid and then your face is on the wall, a wall you helped to create, it is very special.

JD: What’s next for Artolution?

JA: We are continuing to build our local artist teams abroad. So, we will be headed to Bangladesh to work in the Rohingya refugee camps. And we have local Artolution artists there that we will continue to do training sessions with, as well as capacity-building workshops to build their skills so that they can continue to lead projects even after we leave.

Over the summer, we will be doing a lot of projects in the Middle East: Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. For Israel and Palestine, we actually bring together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to work together, to meet each other, together with artists from both sides, to work towards reconciliation and planting seeds for peace in the future. In Lebanon and Jordan, we will work with Syrian refugee youth and artists and continuing the projects we have been doing for a long time in the region.

JD: If our readers would like to support Artolution, how they can they get in touch with you to do so?

JA: People can go to the Artolution website and sign up to receive newsletters about all of the work that is being done. They can also make donations that go straight to these projects and to these youth. If you would like to volunteer, there are also some positions available as interns. There are many different options, including grant-writing, social media, administration, etc. There are so many ways you can contribute to this movement, and we appreciate any support.

If you live in New York City, do yourself a favor and see the beautiful wall that was created by the Artolution crew, together with the students of Harvey Milk School and the Manhattan School for Career Development. It is best viewed through the fence on East 5th, between 1st and 2nd Avenue.

Wishing the Artolution team much success in the amazing work they are doing here and around the globe!

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