Photos by Audey Shen and Divya Shiv
To help teenagers express themselves and connect with their community, Palo Alto City Hall hosted a viewing of students’ artwork from March 23 through April 13, with an opening ceremony on the first night. The Teen Art Exhibition, in which approximately 60 pieces of art were showcased, was created by Jade Chamness, who is founder and CEO of the suicide support group Break Through the Static, Visual Arts teacher Deanna Messinger and Carolyn Digovich, a mother of a Palo Alto High School alumna.
One of the main goals of the exhibition was to have teens and adults connect with each other on a more personal level in order to establish a stronger support system. “It was really an honor for a lot of the adults to be invited into the stories, the inner lives and the emotions and feelings of the teens in this community,” Chamness said. “As adults we don’t often feel like we’re connected to teens and vice versa. That’s why it was nice to have this opportunity for us to come together, and for us, as adults, to learn how to better support you guys.”
The three women first came up with the idea of the exhibition when students in the 2010 Palo Alto Youth Forum stated that they wanted to connect with businesses and adults in their community. Once Digovich became aware of the divide between teens and adults, she wanted to create a way to help improve the problem, while also aiming to give teens an opportunity to express themselves. “I decided to follow up on what the teens requested, that adults work together with them to better their relationship with local businesses,” Digovich said. “The other [issue] was that teens were saying that they felt like they didn’t have a space that belonged to high schoolers where they could create art, be safe, be with their friends, do music and poetry and express themselves creatively, so I volunteered to put those two items together and this is what we got.”
Messinger created an additional lesson plan in her advanced art classes that emphasized non-traditional self portraits in order to give students the opportunity in class to make their works of art for the exhibition. The new concept allowed students to create pieces in a different, more significant way then they normally would. “This is the first piece I’ve done where I began with a meaning and an emotion I wanted to convey,” junior Ivy Sanders Schneider said. “In the past, I’ve made lots of pieces for the sake of making art and assigned significance later, but this was the first time I had a concept from start to finish.”
While the showcase at City Hall helped teenagers reveal their emotions through art, the five other viewings of student art at local restaurants such as Mike’s Cafe, Philz Coffee and Bon Vivant allowed students to connect with the businesses in the area. In addition, the event also opened discourse between students, parents and local residents. “One of the best parts of this whole project was seeing the support from the community, and seeing the shop owners and the mayor all come out and talk about how glad they were to have participated and how they could now better sympathize with Palo Alto teens,” Sanders Schneider said.
Chamness, Messinger, Digovich and Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh made it clear in their speeches at the gala opening that if teens don’t take a step forward and speak up about what is going on, nothing will change. Yeh noted that adults are not mind readers and the only way the community can understand teens is if they express their feelings. “There are ups and downs here within the community and the more you communicate with us the better that we in turn as a community can support you,” Yeh said in his speech.
Despite the community’s positive reaction, both Yeh, who gave the keynote speech at the grand opening, and the founders of the art exhibition, do not think they will be able to duplicate the event. “It’s an incredibly special environment for youth to work through their thoughts and emotions and to say that it can be recreated means that it can be replicated exactly,” Yeh said. “I think there’s definitely going to be efforts to recreate this sense of community though.”
The overall goal of the project was to give teens the opportunity to share their life-shaping experiences as not only a healing process, but also as a way to connect with adults and businesses in the area on a higher level. “It’s incredible to see your emotions visually through your art,” Yeh said in his speech. “Your depictions have really allowed the community to join you in your journey as a youth in Palo Alto.”