Addiction Through The Eyes of Youth

Worcester Magazine
April 2013

Addiction. For many artists, this subject is an influence that has woven its way into their lives one way or another. This sentiment holds true for many of the young artists that meet each week for YouthReach Arts, a program put forth by the Worcester Youth Center in collaboration with YouthReach and the Worcester Art Museum. YouthReach Arts provides an opportunity each week for adolescents to come together and create art using a variety of mediums. The focus, driven by students who attend, recently turned to addiction in the community and how it affects these youths’ lives.

Starting April 11 and continuing into mid- May, the artwork created through YouthReach Arts will be on display at the Davis Art Gallery, highlighting the students’ hard work and shedding light on substance abuse and addiction in the Worcester community and how it affects the youth population.

"Bottled Up" by Emmy Pham

“Bottled Up” by Emmy Pham

The Worcester Youth Center has a longstanding history of creating a safe and healthy space for young people in the city. After three years in the making, the Worcester Youth Center came to fruition in 1994 with a goal to offer a safe haven to youths that, without fees, promotes positive goals. Since opening its doors nearly two decades ago, the center has reached over 3,000 at-risk adolescents, many hailing from neighborhoods overwhelmed with poverty and crime. Callista Perry, YouthReach Arts program coordinator at the Worcester Youth Center, notes that youth in the city are too often confronted with adversity and do not always receive the same opportunities as adolescents growing up in other areas. The Worcester Youth Center is a place these young people can turn to for support. “Youth programming in Worcester helps to fill an urgent and important need. Growing up in any situation is hard – it’s messy, confusing and filled with different pressures, choices and conflicting expectations. Growing up in a situation where you face structural inequities is especially hard,” Perry explains. Perry recognizes that many who go to the Worcester Youth Center do not have the emotional or material support at home and it’s all too easy for a young person in Worcester to fall through the cracks, whether that be failing classes, dropping out of school or getting involved in risky and dangerous activities. “The Worcester Youth Center and other youth programs through the city exist to catch those kids – we’re their safety net.”

Unique to programs offered through the Worcester Youth Center, YouthReach Arts sought out adolescents to engage in the community and address issues in the city, too, through visual arts. Jen Swan, an art instructor at the Worcester Art Museum, teaches the participatory program twice a week at the museum. “After teaching the students basic skills in drawing, painting and sculpture during the first half of the year, they choose an issue which is a problem within the Worcester community and brainstorm on ways of visually exploring the negative effects it has on their community and ways to promote hope and positive change,” Swan explains.

Among Swan’s students is Lovashia, a 14-year-old who attends Doherty High School. As an art lover, Lovashia became involved with the Worcester Youth Center, specifically the YouthReach Arts program, after receiving a flyer and becoming intrigued. Lovashia enjoys the different types of art Swan teaches her and the other students which include drawing, painting and sculpture. Personally, Lovashia has not experienced addiction or substance abuse, but she knows its existence and how it affects the community. “I haven’t had trouble or ran into a problem with addiction in my life, although the art we do helps me to become more aware of it.”

Similar to Lovashia, Doherty senior Stephanie has been fortunate to not experience addiction in her own life, but has seen how the lives of others unravel due to it. “Our art is to let everyone know how it affects people and the people around them, and also how you can overcome addiction and letting people know that they have a great future without drugs,” she says.

Jimm Isaac Aleon, a 19-year-old who grew up in Sutton, but now lives in Worcester, finds solace in attending the YouthReach Arts program. Having tagged along with friends that attended Swan’s class, once a position in the program opened up, Aleon decided to grab the opportunity. The addiction theme hits home for Aleon – the son of a heroin addict, Aleon witnessed drug abuse at a young age. Even further, later in life Aleon would witness friends struggle to overcome their own addictions, some dying in the fight for sobriety. Aleon is happy that the program is displaying addiction in their work. “We really got into it and thought it’d be even cooler if we showed good and bad sides of drug addiction.” Citing famous references, Aleon and the others show that despite those that may find success, addicts are hurting themselves.

Aleon will have three pieces featured in the Davis Art Gallery exhibit, including his personal favorite that he painted with his friend, Lizzy, another participant in the YouthReach Arts program. The piece features pop star Rihanna and silhouettes surrounding her doing harmful things. “I meant it to represent the fact that you’re free to your own thoughts, should never give into peer pressure and have the power to be whoever you want to be,” explains Aleon.

Silhouettes are a popular theme among all the young artists. “They felt that this better represented the diversity of ages, ethnicity, social class and gender that is affected by the issue of addiction. When viewing the artwork, all people can relate to the figures with this neutral and universal approach,” says Swan.

"Realities of Addiction" by Vanessa Le

“Realities of Addiction” by Vanessa Le

With the opportunity to share their beliefs on addiction in the community through a gallery show, the YouthReach Arts program proves to be a success in fostering a positive and creative outlet that sparks and engages important conversation. “Creating art brings us to this deeper level and also can help us feel empathy and compassion for those in need. Working with the teens from the Youth Center, I found that exploring the issue of addiction in our art brought about many great conversations of all the ways it affects people and those that they love. Rather than being judgmental and condemning, many of the students expressed the need for community support and love to help those who are suffering,” Swan states.

Perry agrees with Swan’s statement and remarks how important it is for youth programs to promote the arts and just how vital it is for more to exist. “There is a real need for after-school youth arts programming in Worcester. Many of our young people have expressed that there are limited opportunities or offerings to pursue artistic training at their schools. The arts can be so important to young people because art can function as a method or model of processing your experiences, reflecting on your life and then choosing to represent yourself or your perspective in a medium in which it is safe to do so,” says Perry.

Swan hopes that by having their artwork displayed at the Davis Art Gallery, her students will gain the self-confidence they need to be successful. “Seeing their ideas manifest into this series of artwork and all the patience and hard work needed to make it happen is a great learning experience. I hope that having it on display makes them feel proud of their achievements. This show celebrates the work of these smart, talented and dedicated young adults.” Representing their individual community in the city of Worcester, these youths prove that good in the form of creative, artistic expression can come from all situations, even one as painful as addiction.

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