A creative outlet for lives in crisis: Kulture Klub Collaborative celebrates 15 years

THE WEDGE — Quendy Raymond was 18 years old and two months into her senior year of high school when her mother kicked her out of their home in Columbia Heights.

Raymond was good student who held a part-time job. But at home she endured a physically and verbally abusive relationship with her mother, a single parent, she said.

“For a while, I did the traditional homeless kid’s couch-hop,” she said. “… I didn’t know who to tell, and there was just a lot of shame.”

Raymond eventually found her way to YouthLink, a drop-in center for homeless youth on the edge of Downtown, where she first learned about Kulture Klub Collaborative. Along with a few other key individuals and organizations, Kulture Klub was one of the things that got her where she is today: a Macalester College graduate leading Kaleidoscope Place, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.

This month, Kulture Klub Collaborative celebrates 15 years of connecting homeless youth with art and artists. A gallery show at Soo Visual Arts Center, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S., will include contributions from Kulture Klub artists, as well as a history of the organization since its founding in 1992.

Kulture Klub Collaborative meets in the basement of the YouthLink building but is an independent nonprofit organization. Twice a week, youth gather to work on art projects with an artist-in-residence or to visit an arts event at an area theater or museum.

Free tickets to arts events have amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in in-kind contributions from arts organizations over the years. Admission for more than 1,000 youth to about 150 Walker Art Center events, for example, was roughly equivalent to a donation of more than $15,000, the organization reported.

Raymond said she and the other teens who found their way to Kulture Klub often did not come from families that made regular visits to art exhibits or theater productions.

“To get exposed to [art] at that key transition from adolescence to adulthood … [has] a huge impact on them in their adulthood,” she said.

For Raymond, making and experiencing art through Kulture Klub helped her deal with the emotional trauma of homelessness: navigating social services on her own, living in shelters alongside drug-addicted adults and simply surviving on the streets. At times, it was also a longed-for escape from reality, she added.

“I think Kulture Klub just helped me find my voice,” Raymond said.

A place to create

Kulture Klub’s basement space is cluttered with art supplies and art creations — paintings, collages and even, at the entrance, sculptures made with mixed-and-matched doll parts.

When Hannah Felix, 21, first walked into the room as a homeless 19-year-old, the clutter looked like an incredible opportunity. Felix had hoped to make a career in art but never before had access to so many materials.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she recalled.

On a Tuesday evening in late October, Felix sat near artist-in-residence Connie Cohen as the two worked to complete mosaics for the 15th-anniversary show. Felix broke small pieces off of tile samples and glued them into a colorful design.

Executive Director Mike Hoyt said about a dozen teens and young adults typically gathered for the twice-weekly Kulture Klub meetings, so it was a slow night. Felix was one of only four people who stopped in to work on a mosaic while, upstairs, homeless teens gathered for dinner in the YouthLink cafeteria.

It was quiet enough in Kulture Klub for Felix to describe the many ways in which her life had changed over the previous two years. She found housing, started college and was even able to get a couple of paintings displayed at YouthLink and at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

Felix also built her confidence.

“When I’m doing this, I don’t feel so helpless,” she said. “I feel in control.”

That’s exactly Kulture Klub’s niche, Hoyt said. Other organizations provide for physical needs, like housing, food and medical care for teens in crisis.

“We’re here to support and nurture the other aspects of their lives, beyond crisis,” he said.

A lasting impact

Kulture Klub Collaborative founder Dorit Cypis said she saw a need for that type of support when she first wandered into YouthLink in 1992.

The “crazy, chaotic” environment of the drop-in center fascinated Cypis. She hung around and watched as teens came in off the street to receive the kinds of basic assistance that helped them survive day to day.

“But [what] wasn’t getting addressed at all was their mind and their imagination and their hearts,” she said.

Cypis, who now lives in Los Angeles, started the group that year with outings to arts events. But Kulture Klub really took off a few months later, after she bought a microphone and public address system for $50 and began hosting spoken-word poetry sessions.

“I saw that the kids were writing, very privately, some amazing things about their lives,” she said.

Two years later, in 1994, a $5,000 seed grant from the McKnight Foundation started Kulture Klub on the path to becoming a nonprofit organization. Since then, several dozen artists-in-residence have volunteered to work with hundreds of teens and young adults at Kulture Klub.

Soo Visual Arts Center Executive Director Suzy Greenberg invited Kulture Klub to participate in the first show she held at her gallery back in 2001. Then, two or three years later, Greenberg joined the program as an artist in residence.

For her project, Greenberg had the teens sculpt tiny figures that were then cast in resin. They hid 660 of these figures — representing the average number of homeless teens in the Twin Cities — in various places around the city. Information on the back of each figurine led people to the Kulture Klub website.

“I think of the arts as being something that is such a great outlet for people,” she said, adding that her discovery of sculpture led to positive changes in her own life.

Greenberg recognized Kulture Klub, in the context of a homeless drop-in center, as something unique.

“I don’t know of other things like that, that have that same ability to sweep people out of this center and teach them something new,” she said.

For Raymond, who now has a 7-year-old son, Malachi, that experience had a lasting impact on her life.

“Art wasn’t in my life when I was growing up, but it is a part of [my son’s] because of Kulture Klub,” she said. “That’s where I found the value in art.”