Department of Public Works
The Youth ArtWorks program hires young artists and challenges them with the task of making public art
Even before this summer, Wells Avenue had more character than just about any street in Reno. It has even more local color now, thanks to three new murals painted by artists employed by the Youth ArtWorks program. The first mural, on Body Graphics Tattooing, 460 S. Wells Ave., features a Skeleton Alley band cranking out what one imagines is an upbeat but macabre funeral procession in honor of El Día de los Muertos. It’s a perfect fit for a tattoo parlor and a reflection of the neighborhood’s Hispanic influence.
The second mural, a little farther south on the Wells Avenue Car Wash, 1105 S. Wells, consists of a series of 2-by-2-foot squares, each depicting a local activity, event or location. There’s action of the rodeo and casino varieties and tranquil illustrations of the Truckee River and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a fun survey of local attractions, but even more impressive when viewed from across the street, where the disparate squares form the impression of a human face.
The third mural is at the Reno Little Theater building, 246 E. Arroyo St., on the corner of Wells and Arroyo. Other walls of the building have been painted during previous years of the Youth ArtWorks program. This year, the artists painted the building’s 18-by-85-foot south wall. Since it is a theater, the artists drew their inspiration straight from the Bard. There’s a quote about the seven stages of life from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The mural depicts these stages, from infancy to the deathbed, using a cast of performing monkeys.
These murals were conceived and executed mostly by artists ages 14 to 21. Since 1997, Youth ArtWorks has been providing artistically inclined young people with rewarding summer employment. The young artists work as paid apprentices to established professional artists, who provide training and guidance. All of the conceptual and physical labor of Youth ArtWorks projects is done by the young artists.
The program began as a collaboration among the Sierra Arts Foundation, the Reno Police Department and the Nevada Museum of Art. The program initially was aimed at young people involved with graffiti crimes as a positive way to channel their creative energy without illegally defacing private property.
“The apprentices learn that public art done in a way that the public is accepting of is going to be much more productive for them,” says muralist John Coleman, who was the lead artist on the Wells murals.
Artist Matt McDowell, 22, who has participated in the program four times—this year as a senior apprentice—echoes Coleman’s sentiment: “I was into tagging on street signs and whatnot but not really getting too much out of it. You can’t really get a masterpiece up there in a matter of minutes. I was looking for something where you could take your time and do something really nice and intricate. I already wanted to do legal murals, but this program really helped push me in that direction.”
The program was an immediate success. Two murals were completed the first summer. Within a few years, the program outgrew its three parents and became an independent non-profit organization. It has its own executive director, Marian Samuelson (formerly the cultural arts coordinator for the city of Sparks), and the organization includes projects in a variety of disciplines, including sculpture, landscape architecture, literary arts, dance and theater.
This year, in addition to the Wells murals, there was a theater project and a mural-restoration project. The theater project, with professional guidance from Brüka Theatre actress/director Mary Bennett and recording artist/musical director Joyce Vetter, resulted in an original play that incorporated elements of poetry, song and dance.
Since the program has been beautifying Reno for nearly 10 years, many of the older murals, like the ones at Clayton and Billinghurst Middle Schools, were in need of a touch-up. The program sponsored a mural restoration project with lead artist Erik Burke. The artists fixed the wear and tear caused by weather, pollution and vandalism. “All of the kids got really good at matching colors,” says Burke.
“There are two purposes of the Youth ArtWorks program,” says Sierra Arts Executive Director Jill Berryman. “One is to create public art and beautify the community, and the second is to teach work skills.”
In order to secure a position as an apprentice, an applicant must submit an application, a portfolio and a letter of recommendation. Artists must show up on time, ready to work and willing to cooperate. It’s a first job for many, and they have to learn to work together in a limited amount of time.
“In school, a lot of people take art for an easy ‘A,'” says Emily Hoops, 16, a first-time participant in the program. “This is really a job. You have to worry about when you’re going to get things done so that you can start working on the next part of the project. In school, you might just breeze through, but when it’s a job, it pressures you to do your best and do it in a timely manner.”
The senior apprentices are usually over age 18 and have participated in the program before. They act as leaders and take on additional responsibilities like collecting time cards. “It’s cool being able to lead them and really know where they’re coming from because I’ve been there,” says McDowell of his role as a senior apprentice.
Much of the success of the program is based on artistic collaboration and camaraderie.
“You get together with these other artists, and things just start to flow. It’s a really enjoyable process,” says Ryan Hunter, 20, a second-time participant and senior apprentice.
Neither McDowell nor Hunter worked on murals before their first year in the program. McDowell now estimates that he has painted more than a hundred murals in homes, schools and businesses, many of them commissioned pieces. Hunter works primarily as a canvas painter but has also done conceptual drawings for potential large-scale murals.
“I’ve been taking art classes since I was little, but it was never challenging enough for me,” says Hoops. “This program really brought a higher level of excellence to my work. It was wonderful—a great experience for me. I recommend it to anyone that loves art.”
Goals include making the program year-round and possibly adding a jazz band and even film production. But whatever the discipline, the work is sure to provide the community with some rewarding aesthetic treats and the participating artists some valuable experience.
“I’m often accused of doing art as social work,” says Sierra Arts’ Berryman, “And I say, ‘Thank you.’ Because a great thing about art is that it can transcend lots and lots of boundaries. … There is no right or wrong in art. It’s all about creativity and experimentation, pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box.”