Seventh-graders learned they could do what they love for a living at the Cool Jobs Expo last week. Fresh Artists, which provides art supplies to cash-strapped schools, introduced almost 600 Philadelphia public school students to professionals who were once creative kids themselves, and who grew up to work in careers that feed their passion and pocketbook.
Students met graphic artists, industrial designers, architects, photographers, web designers, printmakers, sculptors, chefs, and muralists, many of them Philadelphia natives. They heard presentations, asked questions, and picked up information on educational resources, from weekend and summer arts programs to high school and university curricula.
Much of what the 12- to 14-year-olds heard was sound advice for any career. Comic book artist Stephen Schaffer said he had worked hard in and out of school, explaining the importance of staying motivated in the face of competition. Photographer Jolie Lang encouraged them to try new things. She studied photography in college and began shooting Ultimate Frisbee matches. That hobby became her career, taking her around the world for tournaments. Architect Richard Alaya explained that projects go through multiple revisions and displayed the tools of his trade, from digital drawings to a paper notebook he carries to sketch inspirations.
Thinking outside the (paint)box
The event was a logical extension of the overall Fresh Artists mission. Founded in Philadelphia by Barbara Chandler Allen and her son, Roger, Fresh Artists funnels art supplies into schools where poverty is extreme, museum visits unheard of, and creative outlets in short supply. In 2008, Allen discovered the unlikely answer: Finance art programs with student art.
It’s an idea that seems obvious — once someone has thought of it. Fresh Artists treats children’s artwork like that of Picasso or Monet: they frame it beautifully, light it exquisitely, hang it prominently, and get it in front of the right eyes. Allen stumbled on the concept while decorating the Philadelphia school board headquarters on a shoestring, when she used large-format reproductions of student drawings. Soon, she was fielding requests to purchase the color-saturated prints.
Fresh Artists was born. Art by young people is licensed (with the student retaining copyright) and reproduced for private and corporate clients that include Independence Blue Cross, Drexel University, and Comcast. Proceeds purchase art supplies for schools in which 70 percent or more children qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Everyone involved wins by doing what they do best: teachers teach, students create, and thought leaders see firsthand the talent buried in the poorest neighborhoods.
In the eight years it’s been operating, Allen estimates that 400,000 students have been touched by Fresh Artists programs and supplies though, as she puts it, “It’s difficult to say how many kids are affected by a box of watercolors.” The supplies provided to schools through Fresh Artists to date would, if purchased at retail price, cost $600,000.
Partnerships broaden reach
“If we’re going to have innovators for the creative economy, we have to have kids exercising their creative muscles, and Cool Jobs shows students a clear path to arts jobs,” notes Amanda Thompson, arts program officer for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which provided grant assistance to the expo. Fresh Artists previously won an Arts Challenge Grant from the Knight Foundation.
A national partnership with Marriott-Springhill Suites dramatically expanded Fresh Artists reach, with each of the chain’s 350 hotels adopting a school in its community. What began in Philadelphia has spread across 40 states, all the way to Alaska.
In a TED talk she gave a few years ago, Allen observed that “All kids are hungry to give. [They’re] ravenous to make a difference in the world.” By liberating chartreuse sea creatures, shimmering cityscapes, and kaleidoscopic constellations from young minds, and bringing them to a world beyond the refrigerator door, Fresh Artists helps that happen.