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The giving ARTree

Community: Group gives troubled teens a productive and legal outlet for their artistic talent

Posted: July 19, 2010 10:24 p.m.
Updated: July 20, 2010 4:55 a.m.

George Lara, 16, of Canyon Country, works on the portrait of Henry Mayo Newhall at the SCV Community Center on June 13, which will be part of the five-panel mural developed and created by local teens through The ARTree program.

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When your close relatives are gang members, when your uncle is known for his graffiti wall, and when your older brother teaches you to graffiti tag, it may be easy to slip into a life of trouble.

At least, it was for Jose Meza.

The 17-year-old admitted that, as a gang member, he had taken many spray paint cans to the sides of buildings.

On Wednesday, he painted the words “Newhall” in big bubble letters onto a new canvas. But this time, he used a brush, and it was legal.

Meza owes his new hobby to The ARTree, a nonprofit that introduces the arts to kids. The group hosts two mural classes for local teens at the Newhall Community Center.

Meza said he made a lot of enemies while he was a gang member, but he’s since realized that lifestyle has no point.

And projects like The ARTree, he said, keeps him away from gangs.

But it was his mother who took the first step to take him out of that dangerous lifestyle.

She brought him to the Newhall Community Center, where he joined the Peers on the Way to Everlasting Recovery, or POWER, program. It aims to keep at-risk teenage boys off the streets.

“I have somewhere to come,” Meza said. “Before, I was just on the streets.”

The POWER program finds ways to occupy a group of about six young men during the summer. This includes field trips — like a “scared-straight” trip to the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic — sports and positive projects like graffiti cleanup.

Efren Galindo, the Community Center’s sports coordinator, heard about The ARTree while trying to come up with constructive summertime activities and thought a summer-long art class would be a great addition to POWER.

“When you don’t have anything to do, it’s easy to get involved in bad things,” Galindo said. “We wanted them to try to do it in a way to get some acclamation and show their skills off.”

The ARTree is involved in two different summer-long mural classes at the Newhall Community Center, both geared toward the center’s teenagers.

Meza’s group will be creating a 15-foot-long historical timeline of Newhall. Another group will paint a mural on the side of a warehouse on Railroad Avenue.

A deep-rooted mural
A group of teens have given up their Friday afternoons this summer to create a mural to represent The ARTree.

The trunk is for strength, the branches demonstrate outreach and the roots illustrate the foundation.

The ARTree is trying to provide these teenagers a creative outlet that will give them a sense of accomplishment and a project they can take pride in.

Flavia Dominguez, 17, said she’d much rather be out in the sun painting on a Friday afternoon than sitting at home doing nothing.

“It’s going to be fun,” the Hart High School student said. “Everyone is working hard and everyone is doing their best.”

Though all the kids are involved in the design of the project, Ismar Tovar, 16, has stepped up as the leader.

He has a part-time job and cannot always make it to the meetings, so he has worked on the design at home.

Tovar said he is excited about the project since he loves to paint and, like many of the other youth, he is into graffiti.

“This is a good opportunity to better myself because I’m not always going to be getting into trouble for what I do,” he said.

Not only will the kids design and paint the mural, they also had to present their proposal to the owner of the building, Tim
Crissman.

“It’s not just about the art,” said Julie Calderon, the Community Center supervisor. “It’s going to be an experience doing public speaking and gaining confidence.”

The POWER of art
Sitting around a crowded table, Meza and his fellow POWER group members brainstormed the design of their timeline earlier this summer. They tried to create depictions of people or activities that were important to them. The teen boys sat quietly as Ann Unger, The ARTree’s treasurer, laid out pictures and listed ideas.

“Don’t just agree. If you want to see something in there, say something,” she told them.

Some of the kids hesitated — they said they did not want to mess up the project.

“There are no mistakes in art,” Unger told them.

Bob Hernandez, president and a founder of The ARTree, also reassured the group.

“There’s no way you guys won’t succeed; we’re setting you guys up,” he said. They have guides and support along the way, but ultimately, the kids are the artists. A timeline of Newhall was their idea.

“I want kids to take ownership of it,” Hernandez said. “Murals throughout time have been instrumental in changing lives.”

“We are learning from these guys,” Unger said. “They have a lot to give. So many people don’t give them the credit they deserve.”

The teens snapped pictures around Newhall, looking for people or places that were significant to them. The project will be a depiction of Newhall’s growth and a reflection of the artists.

“I’m proud of Newhall because I grew up here,” Meza said.

Many of the other boys agreed.

Meza uses his past life as his artistic influence and he looks forward to a day when people will stop to admire his work.

He said: “Everyone can see it.”

Signal staff writer Melissa Gasca contributed to this story.

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