LA City of Learning Portrait
In the summer of 2014, myself and the Chicago Art Department were invited to produce a series of videos for each of the cities participating in the Cities of Learning initiative—Dallas, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles. My second trip was to Los Angeles (my first was Dallas), where I was fortunate enough to have Sean VanLoozen and Laura Rudich on my team documenting the many excellent opportunities being offered to youth throughout the county.
We started at the Echo Park public library for a SCRATCH programming workshop. SCRATCH teaches kids the basics of coding, and in this case how to create animation and basic games. In this era, coding is one of the most in-demand skills, and several organizations are onboard, offering coding workshops. (Next step: buy-in from parents).
We took a side trip to Echo Park to document this gem in the city, a lily filled pond and ample palms. It makes a great place to spend a sunny SoCal lunchtime. The bonus was a quick drone flight to see the downtown skyline from above the palm trees.
Our afternoon hosts were DIY Girls at LAPL Paicoma Branch of the public library. Their mission is “giving girls access to creating and technology.” They were working to create LED bookmarks and wearable clothes. The workshop was bustling and filled with an engaged group of young girls. It was an excellent mix of hands on and high tech.
Our final destination was Inner-City Arts downtown, a sprawling and vibrant campus with rich surprises around every corner. We sat in on a rehearsal for their youth showcase performance. Teens were working on whimsical dance numbers with a nod to the 1920s flappers. Next up, a group of acoustic guitarists showing their prowess.
We toured the rest of the facility, shooting the intricate artwork on display. A trip to the mask-making room was a fantasy delight with props, puppets, and finely crafted masks. We ended in a large sun drenched painting and drawing room where the young artists were immersed in creating self-portraits. A Latina teen worked intensely, her attention shifting from the small round mirror to the sketch of herself. Her calm determination was a good example of what we’d seen at Inner-City Arts that day, engaged teens working at a high level.
Then next day brought us to Venice Arts and their top-notch media production programs. Our team was ready to be inspired. Sean and Laura live down the street and were curious what was going on there. Issa Sharp met us, and the photo, video, and media activities did not disappoint. Students were presenting their work on a large screen for the comics class. The discussion was pointed and encouraging, more like a roundtable discussion among a group of peers. Comics still gets a bad rap, even though the media is a good mix of analog and digital skills. But it is the literary aspect of narrative structure and storytelling that I feel is the strength in teaching comics.
The programs at Venice Arts were fun media with a twist. Participants were goofing off, photographing and reassembling facial closeups of each other. They were deep into editing their documentary projects. One class, led by Estelle Srivijittakar, explored the neighborhood’s wide variety of flower and plants. Teens divided the flowers by color and liquefied them in a coffee grinder. The paste was made into a colored photo emulsion and exposed on paper. Another class had fun with camera obscura principles, creating their own camera helmets and hanging out in a huge inflatable camera. Media programs like this do more than keep youth engaged. They promote creativity and imagination regardless of the medium.
LAUSD’s Beyond the Bell has been bringing a portable pool to land-locked locations since 1963. Their goal is to bring swimming classes to neighborhoods where none would otherwise be offered. It was amazing to see their pool set up in the middle of an asphalt lot adjacent to the school. Kids lined up for their 30-minute intensive sessions. The instructors were efficient with their training and time, offering their protégé a good mix of learning and laughing. We stepped up our shooting with some underwater GoPro action and some nice wide follow shots of the pool. It was a warm July afternoon and I resisted the temptation to “accidentally” fall in.
The final program found us back at a library branch. This time, youth were attending a Phonar workshop at the Junipero Serra Branch. This is a unique free photography class that teaches through challenges that can be completed with a phone’s camera. The photos are then uploaded and hashtagged as part of a massive online portfolio and critique. That day’s students photographed each other and elements around the library. They edited and uploaded their photos and immediately became part of the online conversation (in fact, another group on the East Coast had just uploaded photos). The online exchanges are polite and helpful, adding the personal to this epic course.