Expanding the Walls

by Kateria Vorotova

Expanding The Walls (ETW) is what happens at The Studio Museum in Harlem on 125th street every Wednesday and Saturday where 16 teenagers and a very cool 23 year-old meet to “expand their horizons.” 

In a nutshell, Expanding the Walls is a “multidisciplinary exploration of community, history and photography of Harlem,” said Rayne Roberts, the ETW coordinator. “The youth explore these three notions by using art and photography as a tool. Students look at art and have discussions sparked by their observations. By exploring art we explore our own life and issues in Harlem”.
If you looked around the room on the second floor where teens meet every Wednesday and Saturday for 3-4 hours per session, you’ll discover Polaroid shots the students took taped on the wall, including documentary photos of places in the community such as the Lenox Lounge, photos of different angles Harlem could be viewed as (hair styles, advertisements, etc), and photos of people that they think are part of the community of Harlem and who they think are not. Discussions arise around questions such as “is the hot dog guy part of the community if he’s here every day with his cart although he’s from Brooklyn? What defines being a member of community and what stereotypes do we make when we think of Harlem?” 
So what keeps the students coming back and spending their weekend time?
Expanding the Walls attracts teens that are interested in learning the art of photography. In the program, students have access to Polaroid cameras, 35 mm cameras, arts and crafts to create collages, as well as direct access to the Black Romantic exhibition downstairs in the Studio Museum displaying such art works as “Eminence” by Kehinde Wiley, an artist in residence. Eminence is a piece depicting an African American man in a business suit with unbelievably long hair: curls that spread throughout the whole Martha Stuart sea foam color background. The students closely examine and discuss the artworks from the galleries. 

They also visit other events in the community and museums and art galleries. They also get to meet artists in residence of the museum such as Kehinde Wiley. “By the end of the summer, they will be able to give tours of the gallery displaying pieces by Artists in residence, facilitate conversations with senior citizens, and produce an exhibit of their own work.” Roberts says. Their work will consist of Polaroid and black and white photos, collages, and writing. Their own photos are very diverse reflecting their own artistic expression. Some of their photos show someone stepping in sticky hot gum, portraits with interesting light and scenes that portray the Harlem community. Whatever your tastes are, you’ll find something that will grab your attention in these youngsters’ works.
Jorelle Hayes, 16 said, “In Expanding The Walls, I’ve learned about the life and artworks of James Van Der Zee (who is one of the most prominent photographers who documented the life of Harlem between WWI and II. His photographs can be found in the permanent collection of the Studio Museum)”. 
Elizabeth Jacome, 16 remembered that recently they’ve learned about light, composition, and subject matter which they explored in the Black Romantic exhibit. Students looked at works of art in which light, composition and subject matter stood out, and analyzed how they change the interpretation of the paintings. They have later applied the concepts in their own photography in one of their assignment, which was to play with different light and notice how it affects the mood of the photo. They went outside with partners photographing each other, for example, someone who’s half of the face was in shadow half in light or someone looking sad completely in shadow.
Max Borland, 15 said he “learned how to use cameras and talk to people when you take their pictures.” Previously discussing documentary photos, Roberts stressed how having the subjects at ease and behaving normally is essential to a documentary photo. In ETW teens learn how to make their photos believable and not posed.

Borland said he also learned about different places in Harlem such as Marcus Garvey Park, being one of the most beautiful parks in Harlem to photograph, Harlem Hospital, and the Schaumburg Center for Research in Black Culture, when they were assigned to take photographs of community places on a Scavenger Hunt. 

All three teens say they have also learned how to interact with each other and found the environment fun and friendly. They said Expanding the Walls is not like school. “Kids already spend 6 to 7 hours sitting in school taking notes. We don’t want the program to be like secondary school. Expanding the Walls is a place to relax and feel like they can talk about their personal lives and aspirations as artists, which is usually left out in traditional schooling,” Roberts clarifies. “Here young people have a safe space to express themselves. It is not rigid in structure but students are expected to attend all sessions, be on time, and be respectful to one another. Working closely together, teens will get to know each other closely.” 
Pulling together a diverse group of kids gives them a chance to meet new kinds of different people. Jacome goes to an all-girls school so this environment is different for her. Hayes goes to a school where she has to wear a uniform, so when she comes to ETW, she gives her clothes all the imagination she’s got (she comes in with spikes on her bracelets and safety pins on her jeans J). “Everybody in my school is very conventional. Here people are more individualistic,” said Hayes. 

“Here I meet different people. In school I’m kind of a loner.”
Expanding the Walls sounds like a fun and beneficial program, but as everything today it requires money. ETW began when Sandra Jackson, the director of the Educational Department in Studio Museum, received a grant for the program from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. They had a pilot 8-week ETW program which proved itself very successful, and the 7 month long program was accepted, funded, and launched.
But even with money, it takes dedication and heart from the people who run the program. Rayne Roberts is an NYU graduate originally from California. She was a photo editor of VIBE magazine prior to getting a job at the Studio Museum. With her experience in the hippest music magazine, the participants of ETW find her fun and can relate to her. Hayes says Rayne is nice and dedicated, Jacome thinks she’s smart and friendly, and Borland said, “She’s very into this whole thing and she’s cool like another student, not like another teacher, which is a good thing.” She has a positive attitude and believes in the potential of the youth. Roberts says so far she has enjoyed working with the teens in the program. “They proved themselves very intelligent and creative and impressive. I’m looking forward to working with them and getting to know them better. It’s gonna be a lot of fun!” 
ETW is not just a fun program. Art education is a good way to improve the community. “ETW will allow youth in Harlem to break-down their current relationships to art, their relationship to the art world, their communities and to each other. They will begin to think about themselves as artists and recognize the ability they have to impact their communities with art. It will open a door that has traditionally been inaccessible to youth in the kinds of communities that Harlem represents.” Roberts says. “The students in the ETW program will leave with an unforgettable experience in which they were pushed to develop their communication skills, critical thinking and technical skills in the art of photography. Art is fun and kids want to have fun, what better way to help them grow and learn about themselves and think critically than by asking them to be creative!?” she finishes passionately.
As you can see, the ETW summer looks very promising: educational and fun. It is great that opportunities such as Expanding the Walls exist for the youth giving them access to everything they need to express their creative abilities and display their works in an art show, as well as gain skills as photographers and museum guides. Expanding the Walls is also after a good cause: to improve communication and understanding between the younger generation and the older generation as students work with senior citizens. Expanding the Walls is an awesome program and hopefully more of such opportunities arise for teens who are looking to do something productive and educational in the summer.
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