Written by Elinor Aspegren
Published in the April 17, 2015 issue
The hallways, courtyard and rooms of the Palo Alto Art Center displayed depictions, expressions and explorations of youth identity from March 20 to April 15 for the program Youth Speaks Out (YSO). These works of art and many more are on display at this year’s exhibit, which was originally created in order to give voice to students’ experi- ences through art.
YSO has worked with a number of students and teachers in drawing, painting, photography, studio art, ceramics, graphic art and other classes at Gunn, Palo Alto High and Jordan Middle School to create art throughout the year. Gunn arts teacher and cofounder Deanna Messinger established this program after meeting future cofounder Carolyn Digovich in 2009. “We both were passionate about the fact that we felt students needed their own venue within the community to exhibit how they feel, how they think and how they’re doing,” she said. They made the exhibition anonymous and non-competitive in order to augment a genuine version of the teen voice.
The prompt this year, which has been the same since the program’s beginning in 2010, was ‘what’s it like to be me?’ As the facilitator of this event, Messinger got a special window into the lives of the students. “What I see is everything from trying to sort out who they are as sexual beings or non-sexual beings,” she said. “I see them in their pressures of academics and getting into the good schools, or just a little anxiety about leaving home and going onto that next step.”
This prompt inspired works like a ceramic bust with empty eyes titled “Look Deeper,” an oil painting of a girl with three dark stitches over her mouth and a photograph of a boy sleeping, using an SAT prep book as a pillow. For senior Alvaro Panitz-Ortiz, this prompt manifested itself in a spoken word poem about his Peruvian descent. “This poem is particularly important to me because this is about a point in my life that I came to learn and know who I really was,” he said. “My grand- father told me once that being able to know who you truly are is a very big step in life.” Panitz-Ortiz said that the poem itself was just an expression of his true self. His experience performing the poem was a transformative experience. “After the poem, a lady took the microphone and said that she was very grateful that I performed it,” he said. “She has a son and he is going through the same things I am, but he is not able to reach out.” Appreciative of her comment, Panitz-Ortiz has decided to write more poetry because of its effect on people.
Another Gunn student, who will be referred to anonymously as K, created a work based on the fear of men that grows amongst women. “I have had various experiences ranging from strange to downright creepy with older men,” she said. “I have nightmares about some of the experiences I’ve had.” For K, her piece allowed her to finally talk about some of her experiences. “It’s just wonderful to have an outlet for something that causes me a lot of stress on a regular basis,” she said.
Messinger hopes that the exhibi- tion will not only provide an outlet, but also incite change. “Now, we need to listen,” Messinger said at the March 20 opening event. “Now it’s important that we take time when we walk through here to ask ourselves, ‘What are they saying? What is it that they’re trying to tell us about what they’re up to and what they’re up against?’”
She hopes that parents and others will be able to take something away from this exhibit and apply it to their own lives.
Panitz-Ortiz encourages his peers to join the program because of its many benefits. “It is an amaz- ing experience, and you get the op- portunity to express yourself using art,” Panitz-Ortiz said. “I saw many people doing different forms of art. I enjoyed every part of it.”