Using art to explore issues related to activism, The Watermill Center will offer a five-week program for teens. COURTESY THE WATERMILL CENTER
Teens are invited to take part in "Art + Activism" a five-week program exploring social justice at The Watermill Center. COURTESY THE WATERMILL CENTER
Using art to explore issues related to activism, the Watermill Center will offer a five-week program for teens. Artists engaged with visitors during a previous Community Day event. COURTESY THE WATERMILL CENTER
Art can be a powerful societal motivator, not just in terms of advancing notions of beauty and innovation, but also in its ability to convey important messaging. For youth, however, art can sometimes feel inaccessible, out of reach and difficult to understand, which is why finding ways to engage East End youth is the focus of a new art-centric initiative beginning this week at The Watermill Center (TWC).
Called “Art + Activism: Social Justice Makers,” the five-week program invites teens to explore the intersection of art and activism through hands-on workshops. Every Thursday evening from February 2 to March 2, East End youth will work with teachers and artists at TWC to gain firsthand experience in investigating how art can be used to create social change. The workshops will culminate in a final project of public works.
And perhaps most importantly, in this program, it’s not necessary that the students consider themselves artists in order to take part.
“People ask, ‘What if they’re not good at art? Do they have to be good at it?’ Absolutely not, they don’t even have to have an interest in art,” explained Ava Locks, TWC’s education and public programs manager, who designed “Arts + Activism.” “It’s about exploring, not the final project.”
Locks has been with The Watermill Center for just over a year, and she comes to her position with years of experience creating community programming and educational initiatives for various nonprofit organizations on the East End, including The Retreat, where she oversaw a teen ambassador program centered on violence prevention. Though TWC has had a Young Artists Residency Program (YARP) — which works with 8- to 12-year-olds from the Bridgehampton Childcare and Recreation Center — in place for the past decade, Locks notes that “Art + Activism” is designed to connect with a slightly older cohort — East End teens. While her previous work with youth has centered on issues specific to the organizations with which she was working, this new program is about inspiring teens to take the lead and decide for themselves which social or political issues are of particular importance to them.
“In my tenure here, I’ve had eight different artists raise awareness about something through their practice. It’s the perfect incubator for the younger population to come make work,” Locks explained. “‘Art + Activism’ is a laboratory for creating time and space for arts and humanities. My mandate is to employ artists in public programs and education, this is an opportunity for a way to keep evolving.
“What role does art play in social justice? That’s the overarching question,” adds Locks. “How does art expose injustice? How can art heal us or bring together those of us who demand justice? The answer to those questions don’t stop when this series is over, but that’s where they start. We’ll give them background information, hands-on interaction, we’ll have pizza — that’s a real draw. The ultimate goal is what are the many forms of art that can be used to express or encourage us to be better allies or advocates or find our own voice?”
As a jumping off point for “Art + Activism,” the students will work directly with TWC alumni artists-in-residence, such as Amy Khoshbin, Lexy Ho Tai, Lua Rivera, Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas and Jeremy Dennis, as well as several artists who are active on the East End to define the focus. Potential issues that might be explored in the program include: voting rights, minimum wage, gun violence, book bans, human rights, gender issues, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, civil rights, environmental issues, climate change, immigrant rights, poverty, affordable housing, health care and more. But ultimately, it will be up to the teens themselves to steer the direction of the ship.
“Artist Andrea Cote, who held this post before me, will co-teach this program with me,” said Locks. “It’s five sessions and culminates in a public works project where we’re letting the teens develop the project idea and area of interest. Sometimes with teens, we end up with smaller projects rather than one larger one. We’ll develop strong skills in action and activism with a focus on art and execution, we’ll also review potential topic lists, but they’ll drive it.”
Locks notes that the traditional museum experience can sometimes be foreboding for teens. They may feel self-conscious about their understanding of art, or unqualified to weigh-in on discussions about what they’re seeing, and, therefore, won’t share their thoughts in a group setting. The goal with “Art + Activism,” she explains, is to remove those barriers and let the teens lead the way in exploring social and political issues.
“There is intimidation of going into a cultural institution, which can be a performa piece where students think, ‘I need to be quiet, I need to know what this is,’” she says. “We’re working to break that down. At the end, they will produce a public work and further the discussion.
“The work I do is about generating opinions, thoughts and creating a safe space. Coming off of 22 years of community programming, I’ve learned how to develop that safe space so teens can contribute. We’ll create pathways for that,” she added. “People have a shutdown mechanism in fear of judgment. My objective is to access the group throughout the session to make sure we’re meeting their needs through simple activities that are anonymous. We’ll give them ways to contribute without feeling judgment, which is key with this age group and I look forward to developing that. Andrea brings her artistic practice, but she’s also well versed in movement and body practice, she can bring more of a physical warm up. She’s my foil and brings the stuff I don’t have for building community in the group.”
“Arts + Activism” joins The Watermill Center’s Young Artists Residency Program (YARP), an after school workshop that has been running for a decade and pairs TWC’s international artists-in-residence with 8- to 12-year-olds from the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center, giving them the opportunity to experiment in art practices and expand artistic awareness. Now, with “Arts + Activism,” YARP is expanding its reach to teens throughout the East End.
A key component of “Art + Activism” are the professional artists who will come into the sessions and spend time with the students as they share their art and the inspiration and messaging behind it. The goal is for the students to have generated one or more key topics of interest by the end of the third session. In the end, Locks feels the students will leave the program with an understanding of how to engage with a range of issues in many disciplines.
“In building the skills here, we hope they will continue in the classroom by learning with this reference, building their voices out in other areas, like ELA or science,” said Locks. “The idea of artistic practice as community empowerment is not a place that most in this age group get to go. They have art class or go to a museum, but I’m hoping to bring them together through change activism and that the lens will change for them. This is a different approach and I’m excited about it.”
The Watermill Center’s “Art + Activism: Social Justice Makers” workshop is free and open to all high school students. Sessions are Thursdays, 5:30 to 7 p.m., from February 2 to March 9. Community service hours can be arranged and pizza will be provided to attendees. For more information, contact email@example.com. Space is limited, advanced registration is required. The Watermill Center is at 39 Water Mill Towd Road, Water Mill. Visit watermillcenter.org for details.
One fine body…