Region's innovative arts education and programs give outlet, experience

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

At Baltimore Youth Arts, teenagers are painting murals around the city. At Mercy High School, students are performing alongside music and theater professionals. And at Creative Alliance, kids are using Baltimore club music to learn new dance techniques.

Around the region, new and innovative educational programs are helping youth channel their creative energies, exposing them to arts mentors and providing real-world experience — whether they're aspiring to arts careers, expressing themselves or acquiring skills that will enhance multiple areas of their lives.


Working with the arts is "not only beneficial for social and emotional development, but it also allows for youth to collaborate and to develop teamwork skills and critical thinking," says Gianna Rodriguez, founder of Baltimore Youth Arts, which teaches visual and literary arts and job readiness to area youth.

"It helps them practice patience and teaches them how to develop a plan," she said.


With many students returning to school this week, we surveyed some of the new offerings serving residents from barely school-age to 21. Here's a sampling.

Baltimore Youth Arts

Rodriguez found her passion in Providence, R.I., while helping youths who had brushes with the law to transition back into their communities through the arts. But when she came to Baltimore, she couldn't find a program with a similar mission.

She decided to create her own.

Last year, she founded Baltimore Youth Arts as a series of after-school programs at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center; Thomas JS Waxter Children's Center in Laurel, a detention center for young women; and the Lillian Jones Recreation Center in Sandtown.

Rodriguez and contracted staff work with youths of all ages, with an emphasis on children 14 and older who have been detained, are on probation or have recently been released. The adults involve the participants in collaborative projects, like painting murals, and teach them to translate their experiences into resumes and cover letters, Rodriguez said.

"Those skills and collaborative art-making transfer to, I think, everything," Rodriguez said.

Tyrai Moore, 19, foreground, creates a painting. In the background is fellow student Darrin Moore, 17 (no relation).

She opened the Baltimore Youth Arts Community Studio in Station North in June and launched a youth arts employment program in July.


Sixteen teenagers learned how to sew, dye fabric, screenprint and create digital works alongside guest artists. With funding from the mayor's YouthWorks program, the teens were paid to create murals, prints and clothing that are displayed throughout the city and at local galleries. Profits for items sold go to the youths, Rodriguez said.

Tyrai Moore, 19, who has worked with Rodriguez for the past six months, has painted at least 23 works — around eight showcased in Station North's Gallery CA, he said. The program keeps him productive.

"It gives me more stuff to do," he said. "It's interesting."

Carver Center for Arts and Technology

This fall, students at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology who have experience with traditional instruments and an interest in digital recording can take their talents to the classroom, according to Paul Diem, theater department chair. The public magnet school in Towson will introduce a new focus on "digital instrumental music," which will feature courses offered to incoming freshmen, he said.

"There are more students in the building that play in the school orchestra, but this is a new area of study and way to create music," he said.


This year, the school will also produce the first student-written play Carver has produced in a number of years, Diem said. Students who have auditioned to work on the production will start writing this fall, and will focus on the major collaborative project through the spring, when it will be showcased, along with two other full-scale productions and student-directed pieces. Diem said the school is looking into possibly touring the work around the region.

Baltimore School for the Arts

In June, with a $44,000 grant from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation, the Baltimore School for the Arts kickstarted a six-week film summer camp pilot, taking 15 students through a hands-on journey of making narrative and documentary shorts. The camp was a way to test whether a full film program could work at the school, according to school director Chris Ford. (The school has not yet announced a decision.)

Two weeks were spent on pre-production alone — brainstorming script ideas, writing screenplays, securing actors — and then shooting and editing, all the while meeting filmmaking professionals, Ford said.

Sophomore Emmet Sheehan, 15, learned "how much work goes into every little detail" of writing a film, he said, and later landed an internship at Charles Street Films, a production company.

Senior Mecca Lewis, 17, said the camp was an opportunity to work in a group. Setting up sound and lighting, "I learned to do a lot of things before [filming]," she said.


In other developments at the school, Ford said this fall it would focus on "what's happening [in Africa] in art, science and politics to get us out of our European focus," and invite African artists to work with students and to send students abroad to learn about the varying forms of art for themselves.

"There are plenty of places to look at and become an expert in, and we're broadening that perspective," he said.

Creative Alliance

For years, the Creative Alliance has hosted after-school arts programs at local schools, including Tench Tilghman Elementary and Middle School and William Paca Elementary School, and a series of free art programs for kids.

In September of last year, the organization kicked off its Baltimore Club Dance program, "Creative Kaos," according to Maria Aldana, the director of the education department. McElderry Park children from elementary to high school convened to master dance techniques set to the city's signature sound, the fast-paced genre that combines hip-hop and house music styles.

Ages 5 to 18 took part in rehearsals, performances, professional development and field trips to sites around the city, Aldana said. This October, youths will work with lead dance teacher Shayna Gregg to showcase their talent and produce their own music as well as roles and performance locations, said Aldana.


"It's so energetic," she said. "And really difficult. I don't know how the kids do it."

Mercy High School

Imagine walking into your high school auditorium and seeing a full orchestra or adult theater group rehearsing.

That was 17-year-old Sammie Maygers' experience as a senior at Mercy High School this past year — and she got to join in.

The all-girls Catholic high school gave residence to the Hunt Valley Symphony Orchestra in January 2015 and Charm City Players, a local theater group, in November. Both groups use the school's 670-seat Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Auditorium for rehearsal and performances, while mentoring and collaborating with Mercy students for special music and theater productions.

"It allows our Mercy students to practice and perform at very high levels," both on stage and off, said Mary Beth Lennon, the school's president.


Students work backstage and learn to operate sound and lighting while interacting with the two arts groups, according to Maygers, who graduated this year and sang with Mercy's choir for all four years. She holds a special place in her heart for the orchestra's more than 60 members.

"Their mentorship was very helpful. I don't think I could have gotten it anywhere else," said Maygers, who performed in two shows with the orchestra, including a joint Broadway pop show and the school's "Holiday Spectacular" in December.

The orchestra has at least eight performances planned during the 2016-2017 season, according to Lennon.

Charm City Players' season will include "Beauty and the Beast" in November, "Mary Poppins" in March and "Peter Pan" next summer.

"These are all full-scale musical productions. Our cast for 'Beauty and the Beast' is 80 people and the full orchestra, with [students] performing and working backstage," said co-founder and artistic director of Charm City Players, Stephen Napp, 57. "It's much larger scale than any normal school production would ever give them exposure to."

University of Baltimore


Leading the Baltimore School for the Arts' theater department for 37 years was no small feat for Donald Hicken, who retired July 1. But his reign in educating Baltimore's aspiring thespians is not over.

This fall, Hicken and University of Baltimore will collaborate with the Hippodrome Foundation and Everyman Theatre to offer Performance Studies: Baltimore, a theater program geared toward talented high school students who might not have the resources to attend an arts college.

"Students come out of schools like Baltimore School for the Arts, George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology and other high schools in the area, but many of them cannot afford to go to an expensive high-tier college or do high conservatory training," said Hicken, who will be co-teaching the program's first performance course with Kimberley Lynne, the university's arts and theater manager. The first performance, a piece devised by Lynne about the 1968 race riots, will be directed by Hicken and held in November.

Weekend Watch


Plan your weekend with our picks for the best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV shows and more. Delivered every Thursday.

Students will first enroll in the major and later audition to be a part of ensembles held throughout the year, Lynne said. The program will also incorporate lessons on arts management, entrepreneurship and marketing skills to teach students how to build their brands as actors.

But above all is mentorship, Hicken said.

His goal is to incorporate workshops and master classes led by actors from the Hippodrome and Everyman.


"The main thing is teaching by example. It's a little bit like playing tennis with someone that's better than you," he said.

"It's going to be hard, but it's going to make you better."