In Van Go's east Lawrence studio, at-risk teens learn that with art, as life, the sky's the limit

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Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

The Van Go Mobile Arts JAMS! annual Adornment Show will be Saturday at the Van Go studios, 715 N.J. Ronnie Garrett, Lawrence, a program assistant at Van Go, sat Tuesday among metal stools the students painted, which will be sold at the show.

The kids at Van Go JAMS! call Ronnie Garrett "Grandpa."

That's because, at 21, he's already something of a veteran of the arts-based employment program.

Garrett took part in the very first session of Van Go JAMS! -- Jobs in the Arts Make Sense -- in 1999. His teenage face looks out from the group photo of that inaugural class and the two thereafter that hang on a wall in Van Go Mobile Arts' east Lawrence offices.

When he stumbled onto Van Go in junior high, Garrett desperately needed some structure and support in his life.

"I was just wild," he recalls. "And it was cool to have someplace where I could use the supplies 'cause I didn't have much money."

Now the tables have turned, and, after dropping out of Lawrence High School and taking some time off to travel, Garrett has returned to Van Go to mentor youth who come from circumstances he's all too familiar with.

He calls the young artists his "babies."

"I understand what they're going through," says Garrett, who is employed through Van Go's new LifeJAMS program for 18- to 21-year-olds and advised teens during the fall JAMS! session, which ended Nov. 13. "They were a lot more open with me because I didn't try to make myself the authority figure. I want them to succeed."

photo

Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

Framed by the legs of a bench, Lance LeClair, Lawrence, paints a wooden seat at the Van Go Mobile Arts studios, 715 N.J. The bench is an example of the type of items that will be available Saturday at the annual Adornment Show.

The measure of their success rested last weeks in stacks of fused glass plates and bowls, painted watering cans and tractor stools, pressed ceramic tile and block prints in the warehouse-style art studio that will be transformed into a posh gallery for the opening of the annual Adornment Show on Saturday.

Eighteen apprentices -- all at-risk youth, ages 14-18 -- created the projects with help from Lawrence artists Bob Gent, Cathy Ledeker, Michael Krueger and Laura Ramberg during an eight-week session. The kids earned minimum wage and tallied 20 hours a week. Now Garrett and Van Go staff members are busy arranging the work for the sale, which executive director Lynne Green describes as icing on the cake for the young artists.

"It really is the culmination of all this success, having people buy -- and not just buy, but rave over -- the work that they've made, it sort of knocks the kids out," she says. "They're not expecting it, and they really are just sort of blown away. So it isn't often until that event happens the kids really understand what they get from being here."

Good vibrations
The teens notice little changes in themselves, though, as the session proceeds. For instance, their stress levels drop.

The proof is in the stressometer, Green says.

Students are asked at the beginning and end of each work day to assign a numeric value to their stress level and, by the end of the session, 95 percent of the kids report that they feel better, Green says.

"Our hope is that, over time, the stress level doesn't just decrease in 2 1/2 hours after school but that kids begin to internalize those good feelings and can carry that through into their daily lives," she says.

That has worked for 18-year-old Lance LeClair, who has worked at Van Go for more than a year.

"For me, it's always been a good place to come after school when I've had a bad day," says LeClair as he sands part of a bench he's creating for a math classroom at a Topeka middle school. "I think it's been a pretty positive experience. I think it's better than most jobs you could have at this age -- and a lot more supportive."

Nineteen-year-old Stephanie Rogers agrees.

"They (Van Go) have helped me out a lot when things were going pretty hard," she says, noting that the program also fills a gap in the community. "I really like doing art, and in Lawrence, there aren't very many art-related jobs available to people under 18."

Art for life
Green has found that although JAMS! imparts basic art and job skills, it doesn't prepare youth who can't or don't want to go to college to compete for arts-related jobs when they leave the program.

So Van Go is in the midst of efforts to triple the space it occupies at 715 N.J. -- jumping from 4,000 to 12,000 square feet -- and adding a vocational training center that would teach applied arts, such as graphic design, wood working and glass making to older teens.

Trainees in the fully functioning studios could potentially do commissioned work, Green says.

"Whereas we're making $10,000 from the Adornment Show -- our budget is $300,000 -- we would like to make the work that gets produced a significant part of the budget so we would become more self-sufficient," she says.

Anything to sustain the program is good news for the youth who stand to benefit from Van Go. They come from a variety of circumstances: low-income families, single-parent homes, the juvenile justice system. A few struggle with mental illness.

"It kind of boils down to just not having as many opportunities as a lot of other kids," says program director Jim Lewis.

Empowering youth coming from those situations is a good feeling, Green says.

"I think one of the most exciting things that we see happen with all the kids is that they come here sort of tense and a little suspicious and guarded, and in a few weeks they are letting their guard down and they're relaxing and feeling comfortable," she says. "Part of that is a function of the environment here. It's such a safe, nurturing place. They come here, and they succeed here. It's fail-safe. There is no way young people can't succeed in this environment.

"Everybody who walks through that door becomes automatically an artist. Everything you create is accepted and respected."

And that's important for Van Go beginners and veterans alike. Just ask Garrett.

"Art is my life. That's all I have," he says. "People DO need art. It expands their imaginations. It helps you not give up on life."

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