Identifying issues and injustices in their own backyard, some 40 young artists from lower-income parts of the city were encouraged to talk about their insecurities regarding the neighborhoods around them. Mentors like Russell McGee asked the students to condense their thoughts into a single word that would help them label, process and address the issues at hand.
Words like "equity," "invest" and "growth" were the outcome.
McGee, known to many by his artist name of Genesis Greykid, worked with local nonprofit Mark Making to help students then create art to speak out on the social problems they see in their neighborhoods.
"The qualities that you develop through creating art — whether you're an artist or not — is impactful to the soul," McGee said.
Implementing writing exercises, art therapy and other group-focused conversations, the students were able to navigate difficult topics and share concerns with their peers. Some expressed their anxieties regarding violence and pressures to join a gang. Others discussed the strain of having to buy groceries at a gas station and having no access to fresh produce, a problem referred to as living in a "food desert."
"By putting language around it [the students' concerns], we tap into something a little deeper," McGee said.
The students painted life-size murals using symbolism that suited their word of choice. The resulting pieces can be seen featured on a brick wall on Glass Street.
Participant Ricardo Nache, a local high schooler, said he was compelled by the productivity, the artistry and the cause itself: promoting empowerment, conversation and hands-on experience. Ricardo and his fellow artists were even paid for their time and talent at the end of the week, proving that hard work and willingness should be aptly rewarded, McGee said.
"I loved making the artwork because we were able to help each other and grow alongside each other," Ricardo said. "And I got paid to do what I love."
McGee invites everyone to visit the Glass Street area and appreciate the students' work. The work goes so much deeper than paint on a canvas, he emphasized.
"In doing this, maybe we can get someone in the ballpark of a solution," he said.
To get involved with Mark Making, visit markmaking.org. In addition to funding these and other student-driven art projects in Chattanooga, donations employ at-risk teens as studio assistants, giving them an income, real-world experience and items for their resumes.