On the ground floor of an old three-story building in downtown Lynn, in a freshly painted studio brightened with new track lighting, arms and hands reach out from the wall. One slender arm is shaded in soft charcoal. Another is green, Martian-like, with stubby fingers. Ivy winds up another.
They are sculptures in a newly renovated gallery recently purchased by Raw Art Works (RAW), a non-profit arts organization that seeks to motivate young people with art.
The inaugural exhibition, titled “Reach,” includes cardboard structures symbolizing the recent move. Displays include six-foot-tall sculptures, interactive boxes, self-portraits, and hands, which convey decorative designs on one side and a message on the other side. The students were asked to complete the sentence “RAW has helped me reach inside myself and find…” Some hands respond with: “Inspiration,” “A new perspective,” “I decide who I am and who I become,” and “I can make a difference.”
“We set our mission statement to reach inside the kids and sometimes ask them difficult questions that normally don’t get asked,” says Mary Flannery, artistic director, and one of the three women who founded the
organization in 1988. “We reach inside the community to be sure the kids have the support they need to have confidence to succeed.”
Raw Art Works provides North Shore kids ages 6 to 19 with a supportive environment where they learn printmaking, painting, sculpture, and filmmaking. They also work with art therapists to learn how to develop confidence, build relationships, improve problem-solving skills, strengthen their identities, and explore a personal vision for their future.
“Everyone that looks at the artwork here says, `These kids are incredible artists,'” Flannery says. “Most of the kids come here because they need a place to belong, and we guide the art process. Art is a vehicle to tell their story.”
The name of the organization comes from a phrase the painter Vincent Van Gogh used, “raw art,” to refer to rough, unfinished “art from the heart.”
Each year about 600 kids participate at RAW; 86 percent are from Lynn; the rest are from elsewhere on the North Shore.
The young people learn the power of giving back, Flannery says. Two former students who spent their high school years attending art programs at RAW are having the opportunity to give back to new students there.
Thonah Ep, 21, came from Cambodia to Lynn as a small boy. He always wanted to be an artist, so he attended classes at RAW and then became a RAW chief, a teen mentor, and role model.
“It was really fun to experiment with painting, figures, and portraits – things that teachers don’t teach in high school,” Ep says. “You learn how to explore art, express your emotions, and find your own way in life. It’s like my family. They help us with problems in school, with friendship, and they teach us how to be independent and make our own decisions.”
With the help of the organization, Ep did get accepted into college, but chose to teach part time and work part time as a sign maker. He says: “They taught me so I feel inspired to teach other kids what I’ve learned.”
Angela Santora, also 21, spent several years attending classes before she started working part time in high school, painting envelopes and thank-you cards. “People tell me they save the envelopes and sometimes frame the thank-you cards – that makes me feel really proud,” she says. “An artist has a hard time getting started. It’s cool as a high school kid to be recognized in that way. It makes you feel good about yourself. I think people feel that way here often.”
She adds: “RAW is different because it provides a sense of family. They genuinely care about the kids. They really nurture the kids in every way – not just in the artwork.”
Santora now leads youth groups while going to art school and showing her work to local galleries. Meanwhile, she’s learning the role of an art curator by helping plan the new gallery. “Having a space encourages everyone to do finished work that can be shown,” she says.
In Lynn’s Central Square, the new space with its wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor glass front invites visitors in to view the young artists’ latest work and see their films projected on the walls. Some of the films created in RAW’s Real 2 Reel Film School have appeared on MTV and won awards.
“We’re always trying to give kids a stretch where they have to reach. It’s never so high that it’s impossible; but we always have to give that challenge,” Flannery says.