Arts At Risk, 05/12/14
Bronx River Art Center

By Emily McDermott | web link

As the 5 train rumbles in the not-so-distant background, rattling the images hung on the walls of an old stone building, a group of six students listen to their teacher, even though the school day ended two hours ago. The teacher explains augmented reality–what the term means, how to create one, and how to make it unique. The students at Teen Project Studio will soon create augmented realities of a nearby exhibition, "Brural."

Teen Project Studio is a free after-school program at the Bronx River Art Center that provides underserved youth with a place to learn about art in its many forms. BRAC offers classes ranging from traditional visual arts, such as painting and ceramics, to courses exploring new media, including digital photography, video and design.

"We've created a balance, not to shift and drop the classical arts, but to keep all the offerings there," Executive Director Gail Nathan said.

People of all ages–from first grade students to adults–enroll in courses. For those students without art at their school, BRAC is the only place where their creativity freely flows. For those who have art in school, BRAC serves as another outlet to express themselves.

More than an educational arts institute, within its own walls BRAC forms a community, but outside of the building the organization works to strengthen the South Bronx community and address environmental concerns. Walking into BRAC is like walking into a family home; the administration knows the students and students know the administrators. Everyone is referred to by first name. Outside of classroom walls, participants engage in the community. One class built a public sculpture that greets residents as they descend from the train platform.

As a cool breeze rustled tall grasses surrounding the pond in Crotona Park, student Michael Wheeler gazed into the distance. "They can't give you a ticket, can they?" he asked after the park patrol informed us that tripods were illegal without a specific permit. "You'd think they would have something better to do."

Crotona Park–a ten minute walk from Wheeler's home–is located in the South Bronx. It serves as a community gathering space, but also is home to crime and illegal activities. Situated in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods of New York City, the park offers solace for many youth, but also serves as a place for others to conduct illicit behavior. When walking through the muddy grass, empty bottles and cans of every sort are easily visible, while one may also stumble across a discarded syringe.

Wheeler grew up spending time between his mother, father and grandma's homes in Harlem and the Bronx. "It made me a little bit street smart, I guess," Wheeler said of his childhood. Now as a high school senior, Wheeler attends Alfred E. Smith Vocational High School in Melrose, where he receives no arts education. However, he can enroll in classes like carpentry and shop class, in which he performs mechanical work on real cars.

In 2010 New York City proposed a fade out to close his high school, as only 50.8 percent of students graduate in four years and only 61.8 percent in six years. In terms of pursuing further education, Wheeler is one of few students who will attend college. While Wheeler plans to attend Alfred State College in upstate New York, only 15.7 percent of graduates from his high school are college-ready.

Four years ago Wheeler discovered the Bronx River Art Center, without which he said he would have become a different person. "I've taken things from art that I want to use in the future," Wheeler said. He participates in the Teen Project Studio at BRAC, which meets twice weekly and focuses on a different art form every semester. While he is passionate about photography, he has worked with BRAC teachers to produce augmented reality videos and learn about video production, graphic design and drawing.

Wheeler continued to say that without art he would have developed different interests and pursued different activities outside of school. His outlook toward the future would be bleak; his dreams would not exist.

Similar to Wheeler, Lejend Beltran lives in the South Bronx. He attends South Bronx Academy for Applied Media, where he too receives no arts education. When a teacher suggested that Beltran apply to Teen Project Studio at BRAC, he followed the teacher's guidance and began to learn more about art than he ever anticipated possible. Two years later, he has applied and been accepted into an arts-focused high school, Bronx Division Academy.

Albert Nieves, a high school freshman, attends the school Beltran will attend next year–the Bronx Division Academy. Following elementary school, Nieves lost interest in art. He was given no opportunity to express himself during school and unmotivated outside of school. It was when his cousin moved in with his family that Nieves once again found inspiration. His cousin, a full-time commercial photographer, allows Nieves to help out. "My family is one of my biggest motivations, mostly my cousin," Nieves said. "When I help him, I feel great."

Like Wheeler and Beltran, Nieves now attends the Teen Project Studio at the Bronx River Art Center.

"Art helps me through tough times when I feel bad, when I feel great," Nieves said. "Art helps me keep my emotions in check."

Nieves lives in the South Bronx in a two-bedroom apartment with his mother, father, older cousin, and twin brother and sister. Below are some of his favorite photographs.

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Bronx River Art Center
1087 E. Tremont Ave., Bronx, NY 10460
T (718) 589-5819

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Saturday: 12 - 5 PM
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Monday - Friday: 10 AM - 6 PM
Saturday: 10 AM - 5 PM

DIRECTIONS TO CENTER:  By Train: Take #2 or #5 to West Farms Square/East Tremont. Walk one block east to Bronx Street. By Bus: Take #'s B9, 21, 36, 40, 42, or Q44 to East Tremont and Boston Road. By Car: Take Bruckner Expressway to Sheridan Expressway, and exit at East Tremont Ave. Turn left at the traffic light one block down onto East Tremont. Turn left after one block onto Bronx St. (Cross Bronx Expressway) towards Rosedale Ave, then exit. Turn left onto Rosedale Ave, then take a left onto Tremont Ave. Drive four blocks to West Farms Square.

This program is made possible with support from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, including Council Members Eric Dinowitz, Althea Stevens, Kristy Marmorato and the Bronx Delegation. Additional support is from Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, the NYS Council on the Arts with support from Governor Kathy Hochul and the NYS Legislature. Foundation support is from Con Edison: The Power of Giving, The New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund, The Lincoln Fund, and private donors.

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