In the Hopkins school district, after-school art program helps underserved children

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2014 - 2:12 PM

The founders of the Minnesota Youth Community group are reaching out to underserved kids through an afterschool art club.

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Young artists worked away last week in a session at Hopkins’ Glen Lake Elementary. The group is an outgrowth of the Minnesota Youth Community program.

Photo: Richard Sennott , Star Tribune

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Dominique Pierre-Toussaint, who has the build of a football player, is not only an athlete, but an artist.

“People look at me and they say, ‘You look like you could lift a house. You do art? It doesn’t match,’ ” he said.

Nevertheless, Pierre-Toussaint sculpts, sketches and paints — portraits are his favorite, and he also cuts hair. In college, he made extra money by giving haircuts to his fellow football players.

The athlete/artist, aka “Mr. Neek,” who works as a student support specialist at Glen Lake Elementary School in Minnetonka, has found a unique way to use his talents. He recently started an afterschool art club with students in grades 4 to 8, or thereabouts (it’s not a hard and fast limit), who come from various schools in the district.

Pierre-Toussaint and his girlfriend, Tracie Nelson Stanton, who coordinates youth programming at the Eden Prairie Life Time Fitness, are running the art club through the Minnesota Youth Community (MNYC). They founded the grass-roots group last year to offer extracurricular activities to children in Hopkins-area schools and beyond. They’re trying to reach the children who need it most, he said.

The slogan for MNYC, for which the couple plans to apply for nonprofit status, is “bridging the gap.”

Through their day jobs, the couple has seen firsthand the challenges that some children face when it comes to afterschool opportunities. It might be about activity fees or transportation issues or just needing the right person at the right time to encourage someone, he said.

Pierre-Toussaint, originally from New York, knows what it’s like, as he had limited opportunities when he was young. Unlike many of his peers, he never got to participate in coordinated sports until he went to high school, he said.

In his case, a high school wrestling coach who took an interest in him made all the difference, he said.

More recently, it’s been hard for him and Stanton, who is also a photographer, to find artistic outlets for their own children, he said. Art is something that’s lacking in the community, he said.

To help fill that void, the couple wants to make the art club accessible. They’re trying to bring the workshops to places that are easy to get to, and the cost to join is also minimal, he said.

A preliminary round

The MNYC’s art club began in January with a group of 22 students that participated in several workshops with Krissy Catt, an instructor from the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. The students used the cafeteria at the Ubah Medical Academy like a studio, he said.

Afterward, the club had a special one-night exhibit of their work at the Ridgedale YMCA, which drew over 100 attendees, according to Pierre-Toussaint.

The students’ pieces are currently on view at the Hopkins library for the next few weeks.

Right now, the MNYC is gearing up for a second round of art workshops that start in early March. The deadline to sign up for the club is Feb. 26. Students will work with recycled materials for paintings, collages and even furniture items. They’ll also create T-shirt designs.

Once again, they’ll showcase their work after the workshops wrap up, he said.

Occasionally, the club takes on impromptu projects, as well. For example, the art club recently painted ceramic bowls for Empty Bowls, a fundraising event to fight hunger in the state, which the Hopkins Center for the Arts is hosting on March 11. It was fun, but the activity also imparted a life lesson about doing art to better the community, he said.

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