Art saved Wendy Mike's life. A survivor of sexual abuse and bulimia, Mike says she would not be here today without dancing, sculpture and painting. "There's something about making art that's so integral," she says, "it may be more important than psychology."
After living in New York City for 16 years, where she attended Hunter College and spent many years performing and making art, Mike moved to Colorado Springs in 1994 to marry.
Though she had decided to dedicate herself full-time to motherhood, Mike couldn't suppress a budding vision of helping other young people experience the transformative role that art had played in her life. While her children were asleep, she began to develop the program that later became FutureSelf -- a weekend-long intensive art workshop in which young people from local residential and foster homes could make art while working directly with professional artists.
"I couldn't believe there was nothing like this going on in Colorado Springs," Mike said. Few homes had art programs, and many local schools had cut art budgets, or eliminated programs altogether.
Unable to both raise money and facilitate the program by herself, she began to look for a partner and, through a series of connections, met Jude Fleming, a nursing student who shared Mike's philosophy. Both of them wanted to help "at-risk" kids move "from merely surviving to thriving." Fleming and Mike both resist using the pejorative label "at-risk," but also acknowledge their interest is in reaching out to kids who may have had difficult family and emotional backgrounds, and who might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore their creativity.
Just a few months after their first meeting, Fleming (who does most of the facilitating) and Mike (who does the fund raising) put on their first FutureSelf workshop in May 2000 at the Business of Art Center in Manitou to great success and with almost no money. Since then, they have given a total of 11 workshops and Mike has raised thousands of dollars in grants.
It's Saturday morning in the new "Garage" space at the Business of Art Center, and an incredibly diverse, but restless circle of teens from local residence and foster homes struggle to keep themselves in their chairs. From goth to hip-hop, punk, metal and Brittney, every fashion, style and allegiance of youth culture is represented.
Fleming, an enthusiastic woman with long red hair and square shoulders, stands up in the circle to preview the weekend. Four workshops will be offered: scroll making/printing with Daisy McConnel; wood sculpture with Daniel Metz; fabric art/sewing with Maxine Stores; and hand-painted silk with Rebecca Yaffe. Everyone gets randomly assigned to a group and can switch if they absolutely must, but Fleming encourages them all to take a risk and try the group they're given.
This weekend is about risk. It's about art, too, but the art, Fleming says, is just a vehicle for taking risks. "Some of you may hit a wall. You may want to quit. But we want to encourage you to take the risk to push beyond those walls. Sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad things happen. It's just like life."
All folded arms, snickers and shoe-gazing are gone within minutes as the groups break up. Jigsaws are screaming in the wood shop, kids are crowded around the copy machine making images for their scrolls. Others are busy stretching silk onto metal frames, and scissors are flying through swatches of fabric in the sewing studio.
Maxine Stores has her group tracing one another's bodies so that they can make representations of their "true selves" in fabric.
Kenny -- with ripped jeans, army boots and a black "Korn" T-shirt -- looks like the stereotypical troublemaker, but has the undeniable charm and sensitivity of a young man who has difficulty controlling his impulses. In trouble since he was 12, Kenny tells me about his years of fighting and stealing. Now 18, he has a baby and a fianc in Cañon City, but is still unable to leave the residency home. And art, he says, helps him disappear into fantasy. Kenny thoughtfully begins to select his fabrics.
In the silk painting workshop, a returning participant, Jenifer, paints with abandon. She was unhappy with the piece she made in the last workshop, but was thrilled to see that it appeared on the invitation to the group show on November 30, and has renewed confidence. A first-timer, Daniel, transforms his silk canvas into a devil with flames.
Sunday afternoon at 3, all the kids gather again with their finished pieces and a giddy anticipation. One by one they stand and show their artwork to the group; some speak, others hide their faces. There is an overall sense of accomplishment, and an odd disappointment -- disappointment that the workshop is over.
Kenny made a "corpse" with detached "limbs," mostly black, that represent "the dark times," while a few brighter spots represent "the good times": his baby, solitude and spirituality. He has "a totally different perception of sewing," but wants to make a skateboard next time.
Fleming tells me about some gang members who wound up in the silk painting workshop last time. One made a piece he took to drape over his grandmother's grave.
"Sometimes a few minutes are all you get with these kids," Fleming says, "but it's their workshop, and they taught us how to do it."
Above all, both Fleming and Mike hope that the participants in FutureSelf will take their experiences home with them.
"Each art project is like challenges in life," says Mike. "Hopefully the kids keep taking these kinds of risks."
Editor's note: This story is the fourth in the series on the nine recipients of the Independence Community Fund.
A poem by Courtney G.
Love that chicken
Apple Pie Mash Potatoes
How to learn to stop
Worrying and love
The art you don't
A word that comes and goes
But no one really knows
What it really means to love somebody
Show me what it means to love.