Putting the A in STEAM: CYC's Arts & Innovation Program is an A+

A colorful array of tissue paper flowers. Bright papel picado, or miniature paper flags with intricate cut-out designs. Symmetrical and ornate Calaveras, or Mexican skull drawings. These were all part of the CYC Arts & Innovation Program’s unit on Día de los Muertos. Known in English as Day of the Dead or Mexican All Saints Day, Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that honors loved ones and relatives who have died. The children and teens at CYC-Fellowship House in Bridgeport immersed themselves in the culture, history, and art of the holiday for the month of October, visiting the Mexican Art Museum in Pilsen to see examples of the artwork firsthand, then creating their own community altar to display their artwork and celebrate their community’s saints.

“It was a very culturally responsive unit,” says Monica Wizgird, CYC’s Arts and Innovation Coordinator. “Our students have a diverse array of experiences. When we started talking about the Día de los Muertos, there was one student with Mexican heritage who had actually been to Mexico to celebrate the holiday, and she was able to share her family’s traditions and experiences. Others had never heard of the holiday before. By celebrating as a community, the students really got to use the art to connect to this unique cultural heritage, the important people in their lives, and ultimately, one another.”

The Arts & Innovation Program is in the business of making connections. In addition to units that explore history and heritage, the program explores the intersection of art and the other STEAM fields. At CYC, STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) aren’t practiced in silos. The Arts and Innovation Program is a chance to dive into visual arts, but it’s also an opportunity to explore the way visual art intersects with math, engineering, technology, and science. Monica explains, “When students work with paper mache, for example, they start with a 2-dimensional drawing of their idea. Then they break that drawing down into geometric shapes, so they can begin building the armature, or framework, for their sculpture. If they were making a simple heart, they would need to think about creating two half circles for the top of the heart and a cone for the bottom. They build the armature for the sculpture through 100% recycled materials, so they need to solve problems and think about what objects could make the foundations of their pieces. Could a Styrofoam cup make the pointed base of the heart?" These projects take visual creativity and structural creativity. Our students need to think like artists and engineers.

Monica’s next goal for Arts & Innovation is to fully integrate arts and technology. Students have begun to create a digital archive of their work and in 2016, they will begin to write blogs about the art they create. The students will need to think like “documentarians,” and consider how art will need to be manipulated for digital viewing, and how the digital medium can alter its meaning.

STEAM Team at the World Maker Faire

STEAM Team at the World Maker Faire

The CYC Maker Lab also is full of opportunity for the intersection of art and technology. In September, The CYC STEAM Team, including Monica, Steven Willis (Family Engagement Manager), and Tina Ayala (Center Director, CYC-Fellowship House), visited the World Maker Faire in New York City, an international showcase of the latest in 3-D printing, Maker Lab projects, and creative innovation. Monica explained that she returned from the Maker Faire full of potential ideas and projects. “I showed the kids a picture of a woman wearing clothes entirely made from 3-D printing. They asked, ‘You can do that!?’ I told them, 'YOU can do that!'” Students interested in fashion design have begun creating their own jewelry in the CYC Maker Lab at CYC-Rebecca K. Crown Center in the South Shore.

The culminating event of the Arts & Innovation Program last spring was a show at the Hyde Park Art Center that allowed students to exhibit their work publicly. Increased opportunity for public art exhibition is one of Monica’s goals for Arts & Innovation in 2016. “When they know there is some public component to the project, they are laser-focused,” explains Monica. “They take so much pride in their work, and giving them the opportunity to display it builds confidence.” The Arts & Innovation Program is always looking for places where youth can display work: coffee shops, galleries, and local community centers.

Most recently, four teens sold artwork they created at a Friday evening show at The Black Couch Gallery. Another student sold her first piece of artwork at a CYC event. When her mother came to pick her up, she noticed that her usually shy and modest little girl was beaming with pride and chatting animatedly about her next art project. “That’s it,” she told Monica, “her career as an artist has just begun.”