MIA displays sweatshirts designed by local teens

A screen-printed sweatshirt created by Lexi, one of the teens at Omegon. The design features lyrics from Atmosphere, a local hip-hop group. Credit: Photo by Gabrielle Martinson

On Aug. 22, the lobby of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) will be transformed from an entrance area to a gallery, displaying nearly 50 screen-printed sweatshirts.

Local teens created the sweatshirts through a program called Identity Ink by Free Arts Minnesota, an organization dedicated to bringing art and mentorship to kids who have experienced homelessness, abuse, poverty and mental illness throughout the Twin Cities.

“Teen art is community art,” said Annie Dressen, an art adventure specialist at MIA. “(Free Arts Minnesota) is out there doing great outreach … and they are partnering with the MIA as a reference for arts education and the collection.”

Free Arts also partnered with Minneapolis College of Art and Design associate professor Natasha Pestich, who started in June by taking the teens to the MIA to look at several pieces of art related to personal identity.

After several weeks of sketching and talking out ideas with Pestich, the teens were running rubber squeegees full of ink across a screen of their design, transferring it to white hooded sweatshirts, posters and bandanas.

“Just getting to see the vision of these young people’s art come to life is — I honestly don’t think there could be anything more exciting,” Pestich said.

While it works with 23 agencies around the Twin Cities doing art and mentorship programs throughout the year, Free Arts focused on three centers in Minnesota for the screen printing program this summer: Omegon Residential Treatment Center in Minnetonka, the Headway Day Treatment program in Hopkins, and Perspectives Family Center in St. Louis Park.

“You come in to these places and the first thing that always strikes me is they are kind of sad places … but they just come to life,” said Dan Thomas, executive director of Free Arts Minnesota. “(The kids) are surrounded by people who care and who are helping them do art: it’s truly neat to see what happens.”

Pestich visited the three centers with volunteers from Free Arts once a week for an hour and a half for eight weeks of the summer. Although it was challenging to get some of the kids to open up at first, Pestich said once they started creating, they didn’t want to stop.

“In something as formal as print-making, where you see this on T-shirts and posters, (the teens) see this as something that has a sort of legitimacy. It’s very empowering,” Pestich said. “I really think it builds confidence; it inspires them to outdo themselves. Now they want to do more.”

This is the second year Free Arts has put together a special arts summer program funded by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Last year, the program involved photography, and the photos taken by kids participating were also displayed at the MIA.

At the Omegon Residential Treatment Center, teens, identified by their first-name only, work to overcome emotional, behavioral and social disorders combined with drug or chemical abuse. Around a dozen of them created screen-prints, each displaying creative thought.

“I failed art class,” one of the girls divulged during the printing. In sharply drawn letters she had written, “Hugs Not Drugs” on her design. Lexi, another girl in the group, created an intricately designed drawing of Minnesota, surrounded by lyrics from local hip-hop group Atmosphere.

Bryce, a boy at Omegon, drew an abstract character surrounded by symbols meaning, “mother,” “father,” “grandmother” and “grandfather.”

“I was looking through a book and I saw something that looked like the (design), and it looked really cool, so I took the idea and turned it in to something different,” Bryce said.

On his artist statement, a description of the design to be displayed next to the sweatshirt at the MIA, Bryce wrote, “I feel that my art will inspire kids and/or adults to express themselves, no matter how random or unique. It’s all art.”

Not only is the art therapeutic for kids and teens, Thomas said the mentorship the summer program provides is also a positive.

“Kids get the benefit of seeing somebody in the community that’s there every week just because they care,” Thomas said. “There’s a staff person, and the staff people are wonderful, but kids know that the staff people are there because it’s their job, versus someone who comes every week just because they care.”

After a summer of creating, screen-printing and coloring designs, Pestich will take the sweatshirts and iron them to set the ink before giving them to the MIA to place in the lobby for a public reception at 6 p.m. on Aug. 22. The sweatshirts will remain in the lobby until Aug. 25.

“Last year there was a large number of kids who came with their families, and those kids, they were just beaming to see their art at the MIA, and their families were so proud,” Thomas said. “I get goose bumps just talking about it; it was really, really wonderful.”