UPDATED: November 12, 2015 Of all the cities I've visited, New Orleans is the most human — the most alive. The city of New Orleans is a lot like a person, someone who is full of life, yet who has suffered and survived. A person with a story to tell, which undoubtedly begins and ends with an obstacle that has been overcome. Driving up to the YaYa Arts Center in Central City New Orleans, I was taken aback by how “new” the architecture of the buildings appeared. Construction had just been completed, and the shiny new center is surrounded by other new infrastructure, which, explained Lesley McBride, YaYa’s events and special projects manager, is the result of economic growth of the Central City neighborhood where the new YaYa is located.
“The Dew Drop Inn musical venue, Harmony Neighborhood Development across the street from us, they own these lots,” McBride explains. “Through some grant work on their side, they needed to partner with an arts and community organization so YaYa fit the bill… things fell perfectly in to place and this building was built from the ground up.” The $1.6 million building was completed last summer and began offering classes in September. It boasts 6,000-square-feet of program space and offers free after-school art classes to children between the ages of 13 and 25, with low-fee classes for adults. The new facility brings all of YaYa's programs under one roof, as the glassblowing studio had been separated from the main location prior to relocating to the new space. A fundraiser coming up this Friday will be the first celebrated in the new buidling.
Despite the intensity of recent economic growth, the essence of the Central City neighborhood breathes history, reveals what had been, and holds a collective memory. We sit on recycled wood chairs during the interview. All around are gifted materials from a “recovery fund” from Hurricane Katrina that eventually ran out and was replaced by a mix of non-profit grants aimed at keeping community and arts surviving within New Orleans.
With roads closed for construction and the renewal of infrastructure, the rapid development blossoming out of the soil of this city so ravaged by the 2005 hurricane, one is left with a sense of wonder at how fortunes change. I look around and can feel more than a sense of hope, perhaps something like enduring strength. Endurance describes precisely what YaYa arts Center has created: a durable community and a home for the survival of the arts and community. Since it first opened in 1988, the organization has served over 8,000 students, and that number is sure to grow with the new location within walking distance of 10 schools, and easily accessible to many more via city bus lines.
McBride says: “Our mission is to empower creative young people to become successful adults and so we use the arts as a tool to institute professional training whether that’s just real life personal skills, or through professional avenues. We have an understanding that not all of the young adults that come through our doors are going to become artists. But we value creative channels as ways of learning to help them succeed in other avenues of life.”
Mark Morris, the glass studio manager, instructor, and artist at YaYa, remains silent the whole first half of the interview where we discuss what it means to teach young adults how to marriage the education of arts and entrepreneurship, but now he has something he wants to add, his legs bouncing in anticipation while he faces the enormous new hot glass shop (which boasts a 40-foot ceiling in part because of the funding for a planned mezanine level hasn't yet been achieved).
“I don’t think we’re setting up, like Lesley said, every artist here to be a working artist when they graduate from YaYa, because that’s a lot to ask of someone," Morris says. "So, I’m not that involved in the entrepreneurship end of it, but we’re setting them up for other fields down the road. And the artistry is just enriching for everyone. Obviously they’re forming enriching relationships with each other here and with all of us. They get to talk to adults and have good conversations, and the glass is just so great: it’s such a daunting feeling that they have to get engaged with immediately. So I think it’s a big confidence builder.”
I ask him to speak to a specific experience of how a new person stepping in to the glass art world for the first time, what it’s like for a young adult to deal with fire and glass-blowing,
Morris responds: “Well there are so many different points of entry for glass so I’m not sure which one to speak on. Obviously, I work with them in the hot glass so they all react differently. But it’s enriching because you have to face this thing: It’s the furnace. So they first learn how to see inside the furnace.”
After the interview, the discomfort of having to sit down and talking about the entrepreneurial benefits of free after-school art education vanishes. You see Mark in his element surrounded by fire and focused on young learners. You see how engrossed in the intricate and engaging process of glass blowing each young artist is as Morris calmly instructs them how to hold the pipe, the amount of heat needed. He has a gentle and encouraging presence when working with such a daunting element such as fire and glass. Watching Mark teach one can feel a strong sense that nothing exists, at least for the moment, beyond facing the fire.
The mixed media possibilities that YaYa holds are what most excite Charity Poskitt, YaYa glass studio manager. The possibilities of working outside of the regular classroom, and being provided free arts education are also a way to reach kids who might have trouble learning in a traditional classroom environment.
“I mean, nobody can sit and be talked at for 8 hours a day and survive," Poskitt says. "And so many people believe there is just one learning style, they’re teaching to the test, there’s no creativity in school ... So many of us our kinetic learners, we need to use our hands, we need to be physical, and this [YaYa] activates that. It’s a whole-body experience. There’s so much that happens on a small scale; humans are tool-users, just at the very basic level — we’re meant to use our hands.”
Poskitt further discusses the process of finding a sense of self and confidence that young adults achieve while at YaYa. Of course the goal for YaYa is to make excellent work but to also understand that excellence is a process, and part of that process involves finding a sense of community and friendship.
Even more so, finding a place where all kinds of learning styles and differences are accepted, Poskitt exclaims, “We had a group of kids last week, it was so cool! They were working in ceramics. They were kids with developmental disabilities, there were kids with behavioral disabilities, and just watching them be able to sit outside, get dirty, use their hands, it was inspiring because it’s just like there’s none of that in schools.”
Walking around the space, seeing young adults at work, I feel as if I am watching adult fellowship artists in deep concentration and creating. It is hard to tell that these artists were between the ages of 12 and 18.
Christine Ledoux is a local artist present at the Center. She is putting together a mosaic wall out of pieces of glass plus ceramic work that the YaYas had made. “There is no pattern,” she explains, “it’s a spontaneous process putting these pieces of the student’s work together.”
Ledoux has a huge smile on her face as she steps back, observes the pieces of glass and ceramics, and discusses what it’s like to volunteer her time at YaYa, “This place gives the kids so much inspiration, and they give inspiration back. They have no holds or ties to the work they are making, things just flow out of them and it is inspiring to me as an artist.”
The final question for the team is about the ultimate dream for YaYa, what they see as the ultimate vision for the YaYa Center.
Poskitt responds, “The ultimate dream would be to see our artists building this community of young New Orleans glass artists: I envision a youth-based glass conference. How cool would it be?”
McBride says, “I think that we excel as an organization in terms of bringing equity to access. So all of our kids are from public schools and within the New Orleans public schools system, there’s kind of a range of what art offerings are available to them day to day. And so I think that we are able to fill in that gap, to make a more well rounded individual which translates to a better community as those same kids progress through life.”
Morris’s final words before he hops up to the hot glass studio: “Well first of all there should be something like this in every community because it’s just vital. I mean, [free arts education for young adults] are just so important.”
The vitality of glass blowing and free arts education is what keeps the street corner alive and buzzing, on fire within a rich and living history of the city. YaYa is a colorful haven of focused creativity and profound possibilities.
YaYa is kicking off their brand new center with an upcoming auction. McBride explains: “There will be an hour for patrons, a live art auction glass, canvas, mixed media pieces, local New Orleans based artists, silent auction items that will be auctioned off as well. It’s also a great showcase for the student work. For this group of kids here since we reopened in September, they will showcase the work they did with glass: mugs and cups as well as mixed media, a jewelry section, narrative clocks, from which they took characters from fairy tales and adapted those into clock faces.”
This auction also gives the students the opportunity to see their work being sold and to feel a sense of pride.
“The students receive at least 50-percent of the commission rate,” McBride continues, “and at each fundraiser, most of our kids sell at least one piece.”
They get to say, ‘I made something that someone else values’ and this gives them motivation for the rest of the year,” adds Poskitt.
“They will be YaYas forever,” says Morris.IF YOU GO:
“Just Say YaYa” Live Art Auction
Friday, November 13, 2015
YaYa Arts Center
3322 LaSalle St
New Orleans, Louisiana 70115
Tel: 504 529 3306
Website NOTE: This article has been changed to correct the spelling of Lesley McBride's last name, and the start date of YAYA Creative Glass.