Beth Nixon work on paper maché for an upcoming collaborative theater piece
Upon entering New Urban Arts for the first time, there is a common impression: this place is loud, it’s full of funky people, and it’s pulsing with life. The New Urban Arts studio, currently located at 705 Westminster Street in Providence, RI, is truly an embodiment of the values that the project seeks to promote. In a state of controlled chaos, loud teenagers occupy every corner of the space. In the “Zen Zone,” which takes up one of the windows facing the street, there might be a raucous hangout, or a quiet study session. In other street-facing window, a piano emits intermittent noodling and belted chords. Its bench may just as well be occupied by a guy sowing colorful patches onto a jean jacket, or two students engaged in a lively conversation. Tables situated on the main floor of the studio are the sight of drawing, painting, and many variations thereof. Moving into the back of the studio, a small library serves as a quiet alcove for more serious conversation or focused work. Immediately next to it is an array of fabrics, strewn across a table, where students sow and chat, modifying clothes and creating original pieces. Behind the fabrics, a sliding door leads to a dark room. Next to it, a closet space has been converted into a screen-printing studio. The space abounds with supplies for any artistic creation imaginable, along with young people eager to put them to use. But at any given moment, there are just as many kids working on projects as there are those laughing uproariously at jokes, or taking part in an impromptu game of “mafia,” as was the case on one afternoon I spent in the studio.
New Urban Arts is a program based on human connections. The studio is as much a catalyst for art and creativity as it is for conversations, sparked around that art or otherwise. On one afternoon, I helped paper maché a giant manatee, while listening to students’ gossip about the sexual escapades of their peers. Their conversation was well within earshot of several “responsible adults,” but never censored, which is indicative of the kind of comfortable and safe space that the studio is for its high-school residents, and also the sort of relationship that the adults present have with the students.
In the midst of all this chaos are those who are responsible for providing some structure to it. Adult artist mentors and “study-buddy” mentors move about the studio, sitting alongside students. Sometimes, they offer guidance on artistic projects. More often, they are there to talk about whatever the students want. The mentors are there to offer the young people who frequent the studio a kind of relationship that is uncommon between high-school students and adults. The mentors are not there to discipline, to judge or to place any unrealistic standards or expectations on the students. They are there to listen, to respond, and to be a friend to the kids of NUA. Out of these relationships, the mentors help students create incredible works of art, but the art itself is by no means a measure of success. Genuine connections between adult artists and students add maturity and sincerity to the vibrant community that grows in and around the studio.
...part of the mission of NUA is “not just to work with our students but to have this place be a resource to artists in the community, period.”
The paper maché project belonged to Beth Nixon, who currently occupies the role of “artist mentor fellow.” The mentor position was created because, as Kedrin Frias, a former student, artist mentor, and artist mentor fellow, puts it, part of the mission of NUA is “not just to work with our students but to have this place be a resource to artists in the community, period.” The NUA fellowship functions as a sort of artist residency, where fellows have designated workspace and times to be in the studio. In involving their practice in the New Urban Arts space, they serve as an inspiration to mentors and students, as well as a resource to anyone looking for help. Kedrin describes the fellow as being “an older sibling in the space.” The fellows are particularly helpful to new artist mentors as they make the transition into the space and get used to the structure of NUA. Kedrin stressed the importance of this role: “in a lot of places, you’re hired and you’re given a little piece of paper that says this is your job, figure it out. But to have someone be there [who] helps you figure that out is pretty cool… our structure is a little weird, or lack of structure sometimes.”
From the Archives
a Whirl-Wind of Awesome!
Between the students, mentors, and fellows, there is an incredible amount of creativity pulsing throughout the studio. Kedrin said that, as the students work on their own projects with their mentors, they are able to see the fellow’s creative practice, and what that next step might look like “whether it’s Rick, writing another book of poetry or Beth making giant manatees or walruses or whatever it is. And when those things are all happening at the same time, the students feel open and motivated to try new things, and a lot of cool stuff happens that we would never plan in a curriculum.”
NUA does not hesitate to celebrate all of this cool stuff, and does so throughout the year at its Mid-Year Makings show and end of the year “Art Party.” These events serve as a time for students to celebrate and display their work, as well as a time for the organization to celebrate itself and show the greater community what goes on in the studio every weekday afternoon.
"The primary mission of this program is to prepare these Providence high school students for their lives after school by facilitating their growth and development through an art curriculum. As students are more aware of communicating to an audience through an art medium, they will develop a better sense of their own principles and values. With a better sense of self, these students will be more equipped to face life’s challenges." - Tyler Denmead in the Royce Fellowship Proposal for New Urban Arts
New Urban Arts was founded in 1997 by Tyler Denmead with funding from a Royce fellowship at Brown University. In his proposal for the project, Tyler identifies founding philosophies and principals of the organization that are most certainly present today. In the proposal, he says “The primary mission of this program is to prepare these Providence high school students for their lives after school by facilitating their growth and development through an art curriculum. As students are more aware of communicating to an audience through an art medium, they will develop a better sense of their own principles and values. With a better sense of self, these students will be more equipped to face life’s challenges.” He introduces the concept of mentor relationships between students and artists from Brown and RISD. He says that “The mentoring relationships that will develop between Brown/RISD and Providence high school students will not be secondary to the goals of the art curriculum; instead, they will only result from the emphasis paced on the activities and the very nature of the activities themselves.”
After receiving funding, the project began in a fourth floor loft space of Grace Church in downtown Providence. It was named “Project: New Urban Arts” by its original dozen participants. A year later, looking to locate closer to Providence high schools, New Urban Arts moved to its own storefront location at 743 Westminster St. In the new location, the organization expanded its mentoring program, introducing professional development for its mentors in order to continue developing the dynamics of the space. In 2000, New Urban Arts took on Tamara Kaplan as its program director. In 2001, the studio expanded into the adjacent storefront, and continued to add artistic media to its repertoire of available resources. In 2004, the NUA partnered with College Visions, a nonprofit which provides personal counseling to students throughout the college application process, and has since helped many of its students attend college. Throughout this time, Tyler Denmead stayed on as executive director of the program until his resignation in 2007. At this time, Tamara Kaplan took over as interim executive director until the hiring of Jason Yoon in 2008. Also in 2008, NUA launched its artist mentor fellowship program, and was recognized by the Rhode Island Department of Education as a “21st century learning center.” The following year, NUA was recognized at that national level with a “Coming Up Taller” award, awarded by Michelle Obama and The President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. In December of 2010, NUA purchased 705 Westminster St., renovating it in 2011, and opening the new space for the 2011-2012 programming year. In 2012, Jason Yoon resigned as executive director and in 2013, Elia Gurna was hired as executive director.
With all of this structural evolution, came the possibility for growth in how effectively New Urban Arts was and is able to carry out its mission. Kedrin Frias described New Urban Art’s evolution to me as similar to that of a teenager. In the beginning years, the program was still figuring out what it wanted to do, and what role it wanted to serve in the community. After it had set those goals for itself, it began to grow, both in size and in reputation. While maintaining the face of a “squeaky-clean, neat” organization, there were some growing pains while NUA figured out internally how to maintain a peaceful space while experiencing a huge influx of students with a wide range of maturity.
Tyler Denmeand, New Urban Arts founder, on the left.
It is clear that the principles and values of New Urban Arts have been consistent throughout the years. Throughout its existence, New Urban Arts has been home to a lot of teenagers and artists, hanging out, conversing, and creating. Its biggest evolution has been figuring out how that structure of hanging out and chatting can create the biggest difference in people’s lives. Aneudy Alba, a former student and current artist mentor, noted that over the years, while the spirit and character of the space has remained more or less consistent, he has seen a real development of the standards of artist mentoring. By holding mentors to a standard of excellence in what they do, the community is strengthened and the students are better served. This standard doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their objective artistic talents, but rather the ways in which they connect with students and help them in their development.
“We’ve got a really strong core of students who are definitely here with a purpose and are going to be doing some big things.”
In its current moment, Kedrin describes NUA as undergoing a type of rebirth or a renaissance. With all its bases covered, and its structure fully worked out, the organization is starting to see a lot of the same exciting things happen as did in the beginning. “We’ve got a really strong core of students who are definitely here with a purpose and are going to be doing some big things.” The organization is at a moment where, on its best days, every layer of NUA works together to create the sort of supportive, creative community that it envisioned from the start. New Urban Arts continues to serve, now more then ever, as a working model of social change achieved through artistic communities. It achieves this through an impressive balance between organizational structure and sustainability, a richness and quality of resources, both physical and human, and an inhibited, unreserved, and unrestrained space of creativity, connection, and above all else, humanity.