by Jennifer DePaolo

Twenty years ago I was an art major at Houghton College in western NY, dreaming of ways to heal the world through art. My friends and I would sit up through the night pounding coffee and dreaming about running an art center for all the punk kids, like us, who really needed art. Fast-forward a couple decades (and experience as a social worker, a move across the country, the completion of my MFA and 10 years of experience in art as social action) to one of the best summers of my life. This summer, I led the launch of Harwood’s new paid Apprenticeship for Art & Social Justice.

After preparing for two years with our staff, I finally got to interview 13 of 40 applicants aged 15-18 from high schools across Albuquerque. Each was exceptional and I would have gladly hired all 13, if resources allowed. Meeting each of these young people, reviewing their portfolios and sharing conversation about the intersection of art and social justice was hopeful and energizing.

I was looking for 6 apprentices for our inaugural year and found 7 I just couldn’t do without. These 7 teenagers represented diverse viewpoints, experiences and skill sets all necessary to the work at hand. The work: to coalesce community input into a design for a public artwork that improves public safety and pride of place in La Mesa Park in Albuquerque’s International District, the most diverse neighborhood in the city.

This work, like so much of Harwood’s outreach, grows from needs expressed by the communities we work with. Since 2016, Harwood Art Center has run the Youth Mural Project at Hayes Middle School where I serve on the Community School Council and have come to know students, staff and families of the school as well as some of the challenges they face. In these meetings, I learned that students living within a two-mile radius of the school are required to walk to and from school. Their commute takes them through Mesa Verde Park where they report stepping on needles, being followed by strangers and being asked to transport parcels across the park. At the La Mesa Community Improvement Association meeting I learned that most of the neighborhood’s adults avoid the park, leaving our students to make this commute unsupported. The Park is notoriously under-lit and under-utilized, though it’s an expanse of rolling green anchored by a thriving community center.

In 4 years of running programs at various Albuquerque Public Schools, I’ve become aware of challenges I, and the art center that hires me, am unequipped to solve. But this problem called upon Harwood Art Center’s mission and the personal mission and skill sets of its staff in a way that made it impossible for us not to respond. We jumped into the work of getting to know the La Mesa neighborhood, 8 miles and myriad social determinants away from Harwood Art Center. Our team met with CABQ Parks and Recreation, Mesa Verde Community Center, families at Hayes Middle School, local representatives and activists and the International District Healthy Communities Coalition (IDHCC) to learn about the histories, economies and communities that shape this vibrant and diverse part of the city. We are still learning. 

This summer seven apprentices worked with Assisting Artist and Architect Joshua Lopez and Lead Artist Ryan Henel. Harwood Art Center’s 6th Street studio, housed in a historic church, became home base. Our team studied input from a community planning charrette held at Hayes Middle School and made a presentation and solicited feedback from the IDHCC. They made site visits and studied the history of Mesa Verde Park. Apprentices practiced daily meditation and received training in Visual Culture, Financial Literacy, Local History and Anti-Oppression Thought and Action as part of our program. In 6 weeks, this team coalesced their findings into a design for a public artwork that provides shade and seating, utilizes solar power, has a kinetic component, and honors the diversity of the International District as requested by our La Mesa neighborhood partners.

Their design for the sculpture, Unidos, celebrates diversity and survival. Utilizing the butterfly as a symbol of journey and change, Unidos honors the diverse personal journeys that shape the international district today. The main structure takes on the shape of an abstracted butterfly. Beneath its canopy, a panoply of handcrafted butterflies will flutter. We will solicit help from community members to decorate butterflies with the colors and themes of the flags that represent the many diverse residents of the International District. Within our public artwork, we’ll grow a native milkweed to attract butterflies and provide two natural wooden benches.

Harwood’s paid Apprenticeship for Art & Social Justice pursues equity and inclusion at every level of the program. We are not working alone. We have partnered with Hayes Middle School, CABQ Parks and Recreation, Mesa Verde Community Center, La Mesa Community Improvement Association, Pace Engineering, New Mexico SunPower and IDHCC to improve quality of life in La Mesa neighborhood. We will commit five years to this park, creating a series of public artworks that increase lighting and continue to solicit community collaboration. Next summer we hope to hire 10 apprentices for full time work across 10 weeks.

Our apprentices are young people with vision and conviction. Some hope for careers in art. Others are thinking about law, nursing, engineering and education. My commitment, beyond the public artwork we’ll co-create with our community, is to do whatever I can to see that each of these young people finds their path, and with it, every tool they may need to persevere, grow and thrive. Looking back across the decades that have brought me to my path is cause for relief and gratitude. There are hurdles I’d be glad never to meet again but my experiences have all helped prepare me for the work I love to do. It’s a small miracle to make a living full time in the Arts, doing the very work I dreamed of through college. And it’s a miracle I want every one of our apprentices to find for themselves some day, in whatever fields they pursue.