Students ask: What's it like to be me?

Palo Alto youth explore, express themselves in annual art exhibit

The hallways, courtyard and rooms of the Palo Alto Art Center were given over last Friday evening to poignant, uninhibited expression and exploration of youth identity: a ceramic bust with empty eyes titled "Look Deeper," an oil painting of a girl with three dark stitches over her mouth, a photograph of a boy sleeping, using an SAT prep book as a pillow.

These works of art and many more are on display at this year's exhibit mounted by Youth Speaks Out, a Palo Alto nonprofit born in 2010 with the goal of giving voice to students' experiences through art.

Each year since, Youth Speaks Out has worked with an increasing number of students and teachers in drawing and painting, photography, studio art, ceramics, graphic art and other classes at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools to create pieces of art throughout the year. The program has steadily grown from 84 students and one high school in 2011 to more than 200 students, three schools (Paly, Gunn and Jordan Middle School) and six arts instructors in 2014. This year's program reached more than 800 students.

This year, students were asked to create something to answer the question: "What's it like to be me?" The resulting pieces of art, all anonymous, are uninhibited and raw, touching on subjects from depression and self-worth to the love of a favorite pastime or the power of the experience of creating art.

One Paly photography student took a close-up photo of the upper half of her face with one eye covered in a "veil," a white piece of patterned paper.

"I find it very uncomfortable to take self-portraits or be the subject of a picture because of my low self-esteem and lack of confidence," a description next to her photograph states. "For Youth Speaks Out I decided to face my fear and use a photo that has me looking straight at the camera but that also contains a veil."

Nearby hangs an acrylic painting with chaotic swaths of angry red and black and the outline of a face with a black crown.

"My experimental self-portrait, entitled King of Nothing, is an attempt to capture the whirlwind of feelings and emotions such as disappointment, as well as success, and a feeling of personal uniqueness that is so prevalent in the teenage experience," the student's description states. "Red is clearly the dominant color in the background, and this symbolically represents the anger that I often experience while trying to survive in an educational system that treats students as a statistic or a product to be packaged and shipped off to elite colleges.

"In this picture, I am literally fighting to break through the fury and the clutter to make my voice heard."

Many pieces mention school culture and academic stress, from a ceramic zombie face titled "Don't Let School Turn You into a Zombie" to the photograph of the student sleeping on his SAT book, "Sleeping on a SATurday." Several Paly students with disabilities participated this year, writing poems about identity, having autism and more.

Gunn arts teacher Deanna Messinger, who co-founded Youth Speaks Out with executive director Carolyn Digovich, told the Weekly the program serves a dual purpose: allowing students a safe and unhindered space for creation and expression and giving parents and adults in the community a direct line to see, hear and feel what students are "up to and what they're up against."

"So they've spoken. So now what? Now, we need to listen," Messinger said at the March 20 opening event. "Now it's important that we take time when we walk through here to ask ourselves, 'What are they saying? What is it that they're trying to tell us about what they're up to and what they're up against?'"

Youth Speaks Out has worked to expand the ways in which the program supports students This includes having an art therapist on hand during classes, providing teacher training and bringing in a nationally acclaimed spoken-word poet, Marshall Davis Jones, to work with students on their work. On Jones' website is a poem that describes how he found poetry — and how it saved his life.

One Gunn junior channeled Jones in her spoken-word performance last Friday, titled "Sanity." Her voice ebbed and flowed, increasing rapidly in pace to mirror the intensity of her experience of surviving leukemia.

"All I had was time. One o' clock, who did this to me? Two o' clock, what did this to me? Three o' clock, where did this happen to me? Four o' clock, when did this happen to me? And five o' clock, why did this happen to me? Six o' clock," she takes a long pause, "I've lost all sanity."

Jones also inspired Paly photography teacher Margo Wixsom to perform her own very personal, revealing spoken-word piece in front of her students about what her life was like at 16 years old.

Paly graduate Savannah Moss worked with Jones last year on a spoken-word piece called "Inadequate," which draws parallels between the high-pressure cultures of her hometown of Boston and Palo Alto. She said Jones pushed her to "find her truth" in the piece (and with no expectations or rubric involved) and make every word she wrote and spoke authentic — a process she said was frustrating and challenging but which produced a product she felt spoke to what she and her peers were feeling at the time.

"It really facilitated a freedom of expression," Moss said of Youth Speaks Out. "It was really defined by students. I could have come in and said, 'I want to do interpretative dance,' and they would have let me perform. That, I think, is something that you don't always get and especially not only are you allowed to show it and express yourself, but then adults that have prominent positions in the community are going to come watch and look at it and support you in that. That's a pretty unique space, especially for a high school student."

The youth exhibit will be on display at the Art Center at 1313 Newell Road through April 15.

Read about the 2013 and 2014 Youth Speaks Out exhibits.

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