NEW YORK—Four strange brown machines stand in the basement of building 787, the headquarters of AXA Financial on Seventh Avenue.
Helena Reyes, 18, from Harlem, was captivated by the machinery’s function as one of the most cutting edge, environmental air conditioning systems in the city.
“When I saw that, I thought we just had to put that in our art,” Reyes said at the closing ceremony of Creative Arts Workshop for Kids’ (CAW) summer program.
For 26 years, CAW has offered underesourced children around the city a chance to develop skills in public speaking and teamwork. The youth also learn through the public spaces they work on—like about the green air conditioning technology of the AXA Equitable building.
The system freezes ice over night, and melts it during the day to produce a cooling effect. Replacing the building’s outdated heating and air conditioning plant with the new technology reduces the building’s carbon emissions, equal to removing 220 cars from the road annually.
Reyes is one of 79 low-income youths hired by CAW this summer to design and create public art, particularly murals. Although the youth were paid, the nonprofit organization’s intention was not to find the most talented artists to paint the most exquisite murals, but to help young people find a healthy sense of purpose.
Some of these youth have been formally adjudicated or incarcerated, and most of them had never been engaged with anything artistic.
The 787 building’s murals were the last of CAW’s projects this summer. The three panels painted for 787 highlight the building’s design, function, and history. One mural tells of the area’s origin as the heart of the early jazz movement in New York, while another emphasizes the successful use of the building as a home to legal firms, restaurants, banks, and an auditorium. The third panel recognizes the building’s architect, the late Edward Larrabee Barnes, who also designed the Chicago Botanical Garden.
“Although this is our culminating event, we’re not just celebrating 787, but all 79 youths,” said Brian Ricklin, CAW’s executive director.
With each public artwork, the youth learn something new. A different group of young people work on each building.
“All the kids and their work were remarkable this summer. This one moment, however, was a stunningly heartfelt and indelible memory,” Ricklin said, referring to the 369th Infantry Regiment mural completed earlier this month.
The building was the base of the first World War I infantry comprised entirely of African-Americans, mostly from Harlem.
The building’s rich history extended to World War II, the Gulf War, and also recent Middle East conflicts—providing a daunting task for eight young artists to capture in six panels.
The 369th Special Troops Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Daniel E. Harris, was so moved by the mural that he distributed his personal Italian badges to the eight young artists and CAW. Harris only had 400 badges made to give to the most honorable soldiers and their families.
“It was so moving, so powerful. I know CAW is doing something right because these kids will have a memory that will last for the rest of their lives,” Ricklin said.
J. Ivy, a Grammy award-winning poet and rapper, has been mentoring CAW’s children for two years.
“If you don’t deal with your emotions, your emotions are going to deal with you,” Ivy said.
Growing up in a single-parent home, Ivy’s only memories of his father are abusive and violent. Ivy recited his poem, “Dear Father,” at CAW’s culminating ceremony at 787.
Memories of hiding under the table while dishes were smashed, and being woken in the middle of the night to go to his grandmother’s house, brought tears to the audience’s eyes. His poem’s central message, however, was forgiveness.
Ivy also volunteers his time writing poetry with the youth of CAW. He teaches them to use poetry as a vessel to let out one’s emotions, to find forgiveness and inner peace.
Forgiveness wasn’t the only life lesson the youth learned at CAW.
“In art, especially modern art, many people have different interpretations of it. I think [my daughter] has learned how to apply this in life,” said Margo Braxton, the mother of one of the youth artists. “She understands that people can agree to disagree.”
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