Express Yourself Milwaukee: Art Therapy for Social Change

Express Yourself Milwaukee is a unique social program that connects at-risk youth with established local artists.  One quick look at the photographs on EYM’s Facebook page shows just what it means to the kids to be a part of the program.  Their smiles jump off the screen and, in that moment, one can glimpse the positive impact that organizations like EYM have on a kid’s life.  EYM joins at-risk youth in alternative schools, residential treatment centers and detention facilities with professional artists to collaborate in a therapeutic art practice.  The youth develop artistic techniques to express themselves more effectively through dance, music, and visual art.  Every year the youths’ and artists’ efforts culminate in a grand production integrating collaborative work in performance, music, and set design; the show always draws large audiences and often attracts key community figures.  This year’s performance will take place at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Center on May 12th.  SNAPmilwaukee Film/Video editor Sarah Buccheri spoke with Lori Vance, the Executive Director and Artistic Coordinator of Express Yourself Milwaukee along with Jamal Currie, an artistic team member at EYM and head of the Time-Based Media program at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Vance and Currie discussed the practices and philosophies underlying Express Yourself as well as its roles in the lives of both the at-risk youth and the artists who work with them.  They highlight how the organization functions within the city of Milwaukee, emphasizing how art practice facilitates therapeutic growth.

Safe Environments for Self Expression

Express Yourself Milwaukee strives to provide a healthy and productive environment for its youth, which begins with enabling harmonious collaboration among the artistic leaders and adults.  It can be challenging to coordinate objectives among many artists but the dynamic energy and high artistic standards that result from successful collaboration are well worth the effort. The positive effects of this collaboration ripple out to the youth and even further into the community. Vance said: “I tend to draw around me people that are pretty self-directed and it’s hard for us to collaborate.  And so to figure out how to do that also makes change in society.  If we can figure out how to get beyond some of our challenges and make it work that’s a great example for kids on a real, direct level but also really changes the environment that we all live in.”

Vance’s educational background is in art therapy and the mission of Express Yourself Milwaukee has formal therapeutic underpinnings that make their work accountable to treatment plans for the youth with whom they work.  Express Yourself is partnered with the art therapy program at Mt. Mary College and works regularly with interns from the program.  This therapy-based approach allows EYM to work with youth from correctional facilities and other institutions that require medical treatment plans.

The EYM youth come to feel naturally safe with adults who, while acting as role models, also work with them side by side on artistic projects.  The youth feel remarkably comfortable with Currie and will often jokingly give him a hard time as they get to know him.  Collaboration is beneficial to both the youth and the artists helping them.

EYM’s projects are based on an idea of artistic exchange between artists and young people, and not meant only as a situation in which artists are teaching their craft.  Vance has noticed through the years that however the artists’ work in their given media becomes influenced and inspired by the work they do at EYM.  Themes and techniques explored with the children start to show up in the artwork they do outside of the program.  Working with the kids and EYM’s Artistic Team has been a fulfilling experience for Currie.  “You know, as an artist and as an educator it’s a really strong support system for me here in the city.  So it’s a big reason why I want to stay [in Milwaukee].”  Creating safe environments for artistic expression is especially significant for at-risk youth in our city.

The winter studio schedule began in January and continues through May, with monthly Saturday workshops featuring special topics: puppet making, set design, and a visit from Amlak Tafari of the band Steel Pulse.

MilwaukeeWhen asked about their hopes and fears for Milwaukee, Vance and Currie had mixed responses. Vance has the impression of herself as wide-eyed and optimistic, feeling she should be more jaded as she confronts the city’s problems.  She cited the fact that 70% of youth in the Wisconsin juvenile correctional system are from Milwaukee.  And as Milwaukee gets press for being the 4th poorest city in America and now the most racially segregated city in the nation, Express Yourself Milwaukee is taking on the gigantic task of “reducing the sense of isolation and disenfranchisement [many of Milwaukee’s young people] have grown accustomed to feeling” (quoted from EYM’s website).

As Currie states, “Working with Express Yourself opens your eyes to the inequalities that exist in the city.  We’ve lost students to gun violence and other sorts of bad situations.  It’s really, in my estimation, a rough place to grow up, or can be, depending on who you are, how much money you have, the color of your skin.”  But he continued to describe Milwaukee as his second home and his neighborhood of Riverwest as Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood with an edge.

Both Currie and Vance maintain a sense of hope and excitement in their work while simultaneously having a nuanced and realistic awareness of Milwaukee’s deep problems, which is no easy feat when battling such entrenched and long-standing societal obstacles their youth must face.

Media Literacy

2009 Performance, “Bounce”  (photo courtesy of Express Yourself Milwaukee)

Part of the battle in confronting a society that does not value you and provides you with limited opportunity is deconstructing the media that disseminates the prejudiced value-system.  Currie finds that dissection of the processes behind media construction is a vital component of his work with the young people of Express Yourself.  One project involved youth at a juvenile correction center and younger students collaborating on an animation piece.  Because it is against the law to publicize the faces of youth in detention, Currie used the animation technique of rotoscoping as a way to obfuscate their identify while keeping visible their performance of dance steps learned from the dance troupe STOMP.  He brought the footage to a younger group of kids and worked on coloring each video frame taken of the dance.  When each colored frame is then played in rapid succession, the illusion of motion is created.  We are given the opportunity to see the dance and the creative energy displayed by the youth in detention; they become agents in a positive and community-realized depiction of themselves, which is in direct opposition to the ways in which such youth are usually portrayed in the media.  Vance emphasizes the importance of this process: “These kids are so beautiful…We don’t see them as beautiful kids for the most part – on a social level, on a community level.  We want to lock them up and pretend they don’t exist…[We] tend to see them for what their challenges are.”

“There’s such a power in media to influence and it’s so often put to some strange uses,” Currie continues.  “There’s nothing better in improving your understanding of viewpoint and perspective and using [media] as a bully pulpit than knowing how it’s made.  That kind of deconstruction takes away some of the power.”  Currie hopes by teaching the tools of media making to young people they will become more able to defend themselves against the influential power of damaging messages.  And after you know how something is made, “you have the power to make it yourself and put out your own viewpoint.”

Walker’s Budget

The recent controversy over Governor Scott Walker’s budget and policies has left Vance wary of the future. Although EYM has a diverse funding base, including the Non-Profit Management Fund and the Helen Bader Foundation, much of their programming is made possible through contracts with the State.  EYM provides unique social services that supplement many governmental programs, working with Milwaukee Public Schools and the State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections.  But the funding used to contract with EYM will most likely be cut from Walker’s budget, taking valuable artistic experiences away from children and young people who most need them.Process-Product


Making a peace tree leaf  (photo courtesy of Express Yourself Milwaukee)

The process of art-making within EYM is much more than the means to an end.  It is a therapeutic engagement with aesthetics, a way to build bridges across socioeconomic groups and ages, and an important space for personal reflection. 

Currie led a collaboration between elementary school students and his Advanced Video class at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design on the production of a video called “Blackhole Sun.”  The project originated with a drawing by an artistic team leaders’ nine-year-old child.  The drawing depicts a figure picking the sun up off the ground after it has fallen and left a mark on the earth. The sun is surrounded by small blue stick figures enacting different motions around the fallen sun and human figure.  A group of students at the Eighth Street School came up with a basic story for the picture and later scripted and created storyboards for it.  Using the script and storyboards by the students, the Advanced Video students produced the final animation.  Currie explained, “It went from this little kid’s photograph to a group of high school students working heavily in pre-production, and really getting their imaginations going, and then taking it to MIAD, where advanced students get a chance to realize the vision in service, really, and in collaboration.  I love that.  And that’s what I’m shooting for from now on in my work for “Express Yourself,” is finding those kinds of exchanges.”Jamal very much enjoyed the inter-age collaboration among groups of students who never met during the process––one type of correspondence; but no matter the approach, “Express Yourself” emphasizes the process of art-making over the final product, allowing participants to find joy in creative self-expression.  Jamal and Lori were both surprised by the seriousness that the students brought to the critique of the final “Blackhole Sun” video, remarking that it matched the rigor of a formal art-school critique. 

While focusing on process underlies all of EYM’s approaches, it is never more apparent to the EYM leaders than when the youth prepare for the final performance at the end of the semester.Performance


2008 Performance, “Celebrate”  (photo courtesy of Express Yourself Milwaukee)

The weeks leading up to the performance are often demanding.  Vance and Currie talked about the value of this challenge for the EYM youth and how important it is that they have a chance to be seen for their talent as opposed to the societal challenges that usually define them in the eyes of the public.  Lori Vance stated that “the community tends to see them for what their challenges are–[alternatively, at the performances, the community] can sit there and be witness to the incredible gifts these kids have.” 

The culmination of the performance is as much about the youth developing confidence in their abilities to produce art as having a chance to show off their talents onstage.  Lori explained that many youth, when first entering EYM, feel that they can’t or don’t know how to make art.  The artistic team leaders encourage them by gradually introducing them to new techniques.  If they are comfortable with painting, but not as familiar with dancing, artistic team leaders will suggest one dance move, for example, that can then influence the way they move their paintbrush. 

The students’ attitudes about their own abilities to produce art, then, change significantly as they spend time in the program, and the year-end performance is a chance for the youth to demonstrate their self-confidence and their talent.  Jamal Currie said: “Some of those kids, once they have that audience, they go, they shine. It’s just incredible.”  This semester’s culminating performance is scheduled for May 12th at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Center, with an open dress rehearsal at 12:00pm and performance at 6:00pm.  Admission is free but donations are most welcome.As Wisconsin cultural institutions and arts programs are defunded in favor of highway expansion and tax cuts for the wealthiest, community support for Milwaukee organizations such as EYM is critical.  Attend Express Yourself Milwaukee’s performance and witness positive change made possible by the arts and social services.