In the summer of the Trayvon verdict, it’s hard to feel anything but queasy when imagining an entire art exhibit showcasing hoodies.
But 11-year-old Terrance taught me that it’s a bad idea to make adult assumptions about what’s inside the bright and busy brains of children.
A few weeks ago, Terrance allowed me to sit with him as he designed his very own screen-printed hoodie at Perspectives, Inc., a social service agency in St. Louis Park.
Terrance is one of about 50 at-risk children, ages 11 to 18, participating in a summer program sponsored by Free Arts Minnesota, a nonprofit agency that encourages kids facing homelessness, poverty, abuse or mental illness to express themselves artistically.
Terrance’s neat handwriting spelled out a list of names: Nana, Aleah, Granddad, Friend … “all the people that care about me,” Terrance said.
He wrote “Smile,” too.
His is one of more than 50 hoodies to be displayed Thursday through Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Opening night includes a public reception at 6 p.m., followed by a panel discussion.
A year ago, Twin Cities printmaker Natasha Pestich was contacted by Free Arts to work with youth on an eight-week summer art experience focused on “home and place.” She chose the hoodie, but not for the reason I expected.
“Obviously, we are aware of it being an important symbol,” said Pestich, referring to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen shot dead in Florida in 2012 by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and was found not guilty in July. The verdict led to national outrage, and images of a hooded Martin became a new symbol of the daunting race-relations work that still faces us.
A big part of healing is learning to really listen to one another, which is why this four-day show carries additional poignancy.
“Culture makes assumptions about certain populations,” said Pestich, who runs the Print Paper Book program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
“It’s important to push back against those stereotypes. This was very much an opportunity for the youth to tell us who they are, instead of society telling them what they are.”
Free Arts senior program coordinator Esther Callahan also pushed past her own assumptions and found comfort, literally and figuratively, in one of the most iconic kinds of clothing.
Hoodies offer instant comfort, Callahan said, by their soft interior. They offer a place to put one’s hands, and a hood “to block out the world,” a world, she noted, that is filled with trauma for many of these youths.
Designing screen prints “was a metaphorical way to take the hood off,” Callahan said, “to promote themselves without having to say a thing.”
Their images ran the gamut. A teddy bear, tulip and rainbow. A girl named Ana wrote “Live, Hope, Love, Family.” Another teen wrote simply, “Ambition.” Another chose an edgier “I’m from Minneapolis. F- the Lakers.”
Before designing their white hoodies with black lettering, the teens toured MIA for inspiration, studying the Nick Cave Soundsuit, an African initiation mask for girls, and Do-Ho Suh’s military dog tags, among others. MIA Art Adventure guide Marianna Priest was taken by many of the young visitors’ “heightened sensitivity to what was going on around them. They were full of questions, keen, imaginative interpreters of the art.”
The concept of beauty, external and internal, was top-of-mind for many. Pestich recalls one girl asking, “Why are there so many pictures of naked people, mostly women?”
“I asked her what she thought about that,” Pestich said. “Her idea of beauty is what is happening on the inside, blood vessels and bones.”
Her hoodie ultimately featured “a lot of abstract patterning; her own name embellished with those internal patterns.”
Equally compelling were the youths’ artist statements, which will be included in the show alongside their wearable art. Sixteen-year-old Maria, for example, created a hoodie with a double face, one part sad, the other happy. “Even though someone is smiling on the outside, it doesn’t mean everything is a piece of cake on the inside,” she wrote. “If you’re in pain, it’s not love.”
Pestich is pleased with the confidence boost the project gave the kids. Mostly, she’s excited to offer the public “a platform to learn something from them.
“At risk? We are all at risk, or not. We all have issues. I just wanted to highlight their voices and take time to listen to them through their work. It’s been such a privilege to have my own world opened up by the way they see things.”