Focal Point: Art 180 residency connects students with working artists

As they head back to high school, a group of art students from around Richmond are feeling more confident about their skills following an eight-week summer program at a local nonprofit.

“The reason that art is that magic special sauce is that you can add it to other curriculums that bring it alive — because the subject matter of art is always yourself, you know. And that’s always highly, highly relevant no matter who you are,” said Barry O’Keefe, a teacher at the Atlas Artist Residency program. The program is run by Art 180, which offers art programs and events for young people and the community.

The students, who were selected from a pool of more than 70 applicants, received a stipend and free art supplies and worked alongside two mentors and their peers. The program, which was held at the Atlas Gallery, helps to build lasting relationships among the young artists as they collaborate with each other and hone their craft.

“What I’ve come to really appreciate that I find different than just being in a setting with a teacher is that it feels more like an equal playing field,” said Hannah Gallagher, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School. “There’s very much a reason for the word … ‘mentors,’ instead of teachers, because they’re there to guide you. They push me in a direction to really challenge myself but also didn’t push me away from the ideas or values that I hold very strongly in my art.”

Gallagher, who focuses on digital art and realism in painting and drawing, worked on a self-portrait.

“I always had such a draw to the face, specifically the eye, because it conveys so much emotion,” she said, carefully filling in a pupil on her canvas.

Gallagher said she planned to add yellow hands to her self-portrait.

O’Keefe said the program includes morning meditation, daily self-portraits and self-reflective writing in journals.

“We’ve done a lot of journaling and trying to understand the images from our memory, almost as works of art in waiting,” he said. “In sharing that, I think we’ve gained windows into each other that are unusual to find in a classroom setting.”

Student artist Niyah McGee-Hawkins, who is homeschooled, said the meditation and journaling was “a cool addition to the drawing and creativity, to kind of step back and figure out where your mind’s at, so you can be more open and creative.”

She added, “Everyone here is very open and very creative, and very kind in helping guide us through this part of our lives.”

McGee-Hawkins said the program helped her become “more comfortable with trying new things and just drawing myself.”

Alliannah Hamilton, an assistant art teacher, said her job is to facilitate student’s growth.

“I am here to share my wisdom and help problem-solve and develop artistic character and development, helping with artists’ development for these students who want to be artists,” she said.

As a busy high school senior, McGee said, “Art gives me a chance to step back from what’s going on all around me and helped me stay more focused. So, when the outside things in the world like are really stressful and do get, you know, very overwhelmed. It’s just art. It’s just a great way to step back and slow down.”

Gallagher looked around the studio as the nine other student-artists worked on their self-portraits.

“It’s such a community in this space,” she said. “And I’ve grown to appreciate all of them, and everyone so much and [I’m] quite sad to let it go.”

At the end of the program, Art 180 hosted “Bloom” — a First Fridays show inviting students, their mentors and others to exhibit work and share their thoughts on the program.

“I’m very excited in the sense that this is one of the first shows where I’ve been able to show my art on a very big scale,” Gallagher said. “There’s a kind of this joy that I have, of inviting all my friends and family to be able to show them a side of myself that I don’t often present.”

McGee-Hawkins shared that sense of enthusiasm.

“It’s public, and I’ve never done an exhibition or anything like that before,” she said “I think having other people interested in what I’m doing is going to be really great.”

O’Keefe said exhibiting and sharing their work is an important part of the students’ artistic and personal growth.

“To have your art seen, especially art that’s personal, is to be seen yourself,” he said. “Art is communication. If we can succeed at communicating, then we are not alone. And so, you know, the deeper a thing you can communicate successfully, the less alone you are.”

VPM News Focal Point returns to VPM PBS on Thursdays at 8 p.m.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.