At-risk youth create an art exhibit at the SLC library about water and identity
We Are All Water is on display in the Day-Riverside Branch of the Salt Lake City Library System.
How do you perceive water?
That was the question underlying the latest collection of artworks that will be on display at the Day Riverside branch of the Salt Lake City Library System in Rose Park.
Teens at the Salt Lake Valley Youth Center, which provides educational programs for at-risk youth, were asked to use the Jordan River as inspiration for a series of self-portraits that will eventually make it onto the walls of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Each piece in the We Are All Water exhibition is anonymous to protect the privacy of the student who created it, but each image tells a personal story.
“It’s me and the river,” says one of the descriptions.
The work shows a brown-haired girl with a halo and a black, red and orange checked shirt. A colored piece of paper representing the river flows down her face.
“I chose black, red and orange,” the description reads, “because it represents my day [and] as I was when or while I was doing it.”
Also installed as part of the exhibit was a tie-dye cloth made by students and shaped to look like the meandering Jordan River that flows near the youth center in South Salt Lake.
Most of the art that students create is introspective, said Kathryn Nelson, a science teacher at the youth center.
“Most of it,” she said, “has to do with how they see themselves in the environment.”
Often these students have encountered difficulties when attempting to complete a regular public school curriculum, Nelson said. They are not usually involved with other parts of the community either.
“They are not on ball rackets. They don’t go to church,” Nelson said. “You’re just one of them [groups] it’s kinda eerily moving through our community.”
But works like We Are All Water, she said, give these students an opportunity to share their hopes, dreams, and concerns with the wider community.
The exhibit is a product of the STEM Community Alliance Program—an initiative of the University of Utah and the Utah State Board of Education that provides learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math for at-risk youth.
After seeing the finished work, the program organizers said the exhibition provided an important platform for the students to express themselves.
“Students in juvenile detention often feel like other people represent them in a certain way,” said Laura George, associate director of the STEM Community Alliance Program. “And so I think it’s powerful for them to create an image of themselves that they can post in the community.”
It’s also a chance for students to make their voices heard on issues that matter, George said, and advocate for positive change on an issue close to their hearts: the environment.
“We can’t undo the damage, but we can change something so we don’t cause more,” one student wrote under a drawing. “Hopefully this gives you something to think about about the individual changes you can make. Each of us can make a difference.”
Nelson said the students are braced for how Utah is changing as an unrelenting drought grips the state and the Great Salt Lake shrinks.
“They’re really, really concerned about how the character of this place is going to change if we lose the lake,” Nelson said. “And they understand the importance of having water close to where we live.”
The STEM Community Alliance Program and the Day-Riverside Branch hosted a reception Thursday to celebrate the exhibition with the general public. Attendees marveled at the beauty of the artwork and the depth of the message behind it.
“They want the community to be more concerned about the water,” Megan Singleton said after reading the descriptions that accompany each piece. “And then they also said that about themselves, that they like this project because they just want to be seen, and they want other people to see them and to see the water.”
The library is only the first stop for the art installation. The collection will move to the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in March before going to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
There are tentative plans to add more work from students in other programs inspired by various bodies of water such as the Provo River and the Ogden River.
Alix Cabrera is a Report for America Corps member and writes for The Salt Lake Tribune on the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Your donation of our RFA grant helps her write stories like this; Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.
https://www.sltrib.com/news/2023/01/23/exhibit-explores-identity/ At-risk youth create an art exhibit at the SLC library about water and identity