‘MYTOWN’ exhibit sees community through the eyes and cameras of area youth

Billboards on South Avenue in Youngstown depicts various images from the ‘MYTOWN’ exhibit. Electronic image courtesy of the McDonough Museum of Art.

By JESSICA JOHNSON | METRO MONTHLY STAFF WRITER

Leslie Brothers, director of the McDonough Museum of Art at Youngstown State University, had been reading several articles on cities that were seeking to transform themselves when she noticed a pattern. Like Youngstown, something was still absent.

The missing piece of the puzzle? The city’s youth.

“What was missing were the kids who lived in these transforming cities. No one was asking them what they thought. They were conspicuously left out,” she said.

It was this realization that convinced Brothers and the McDonough Museum’s staff to create a project connected to the children of Youngstown and rooted in the idea of  place.

From this came “MYTOWN,” an artistic collaboration between the McDonough Museum and the Ursuline Sisters. “MYTOWN” is on display through Nov. 9 at the SMARTS (Students Motivated by the Arts) offices and the Lemon Grove in downtown Youngstown. The exhibit was funded by the Raymond John Wean Foundation.

“MYTOWN”  is one of the many artistic projects that branched from “Living as Form: The Nomadic Version,” a multi-venue exhibition that kicked off in mid-September. “MYTOWN” includes photographs taken by 13 local middle school and high school students in 14 different locations. The main objective of the exhibit is to convey how place matters to local youth.

“It brought up so many possible opportunities,” Brothers said. “I wanted to connect with the children and find out what other transforming cities weren’t asking: How do they feel about their city? Do they care? Do they have any ideas?”

Students teamed up with local educators, staff from the McDonough Museum of Art, and a professional photographer. “The focus of this project was to realize their responses – through the lens – and each kid’s point of view of what matters to them,” Brothers said.

The McDonough Museum first collaborated with the Ursuline Sisters on a youth-focused project several years ago. In the 2007 project, local children learned photography and created work for the “My People” exhibit, named after a poem by Langston Hughes. “My People” was based around portraits of the children’s friends and family.

Of the original exhibit, Brothers said, “I asked myself: ‘If we engage on a regular basis with kids in these nearby neighborhoods, could they see this place as theirs?’ And they could.” Both the McDonough and the Ursuline Sisters deemed “My People” a huge success.

Last summer, the McDonough again had the opportunity to be part of a youth-media project. Children who had been part of the original “My People” project showed significant interest in doing another photo project. This prompted a second collaboration.

The ideas and focus for “MYTOWN” were strictly up to the children and they even picked locations for the photographs. Youngstown students took hundreds of images with their cameras. Of these, participants were allowed to choose 10 to have developed as their own. In addition, each got to keep the camera’s memory card, which stored all the other images.

Getting the students to understand their ownership of the community was more difficult. “We’re standing in the middle of Wick Park and I ask them if they know the park belongs to them. They just stared at me,” Brothers recalled. “To introduce this idea of ownership was revolutionary and so obvious – yet we aren’t telling them this.” Brothers believes without this understanding children have no reason to care about their communities and neighborhoods.

Pictures from this visit to Wick Park now hang in the SMARTS Center and the Lemon Grove. Images include nature, children playing, architecture, rows of houses, a police car, and more – all of which depict what the youth consider as defining Youngstown and worthy of a photo.

“Ultimately this show belongs to them,” Brothers said.

Because participating organizations wanted “MYTOWN” to have continued life, Brothers gave cameras to SMARTS, so other children could get involved. SMARTS now offers “MYTOWN” as a photography class for students in grades 6-12. Youngstown photographer Tony Nicholas teaches the class.

“… It surprises me – technology and kids, said Becky Keck, SMARTS director. “They come here with laptops and phones and yet a photographer can still teach them things. The things they’re learning from Tony, they don’t know.”

“You can stick a camera in anyone’s hands and they can take a picture, but they’re learning from Tony how to see, how to vision, and really what it takes to get a good photograph and take a good photograph,” said Leslie L. Cusano, SMARTS program coordinator.

Keck said the community has shown great interest in “MYTOWN” and hopes a similar response occurs for the photography class.

Brothers said her team is working on ideas for phase three of a youth-media project, which will include writing. She hopes to turn the project into a publication that also focuses on the theme of place.

The current “MYTOWN” exhibits include 70 different images. Four billboards on South Avenue in Youngstown show collages of the children’s work, each with different themes.

“I get a thrill every time I see them.” said Brothers. “I think to myself: ‘This is the loudest voice ever.’ ”

© 2012 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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