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Youth Insights

Fall 2020
With Sophia Dawson

Below are artist statements from participants in the Youth Insights Artists Wednesday course with Artist in Residence, Sophia Dawson. These YI Artists painted a portrait of an activist they admired. Teens participated in inquiry-based discussions about works of art and explored different painting styles. They also learned how to use transfer techniques to further develop their imagery.


This is a painting of Jamie Margolin. In this painting, Margolin is standing up for climate change and is passionate about changing the world for the better.


Melanie is a painting of my favorite singer Melanie Martinez. This was a new experience for me. After painting this subject multiple times, I like the second version of the painting the most. Overall, I had a fun time and this was a new experience.


This is a painting of Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarus opposition.


In this painting you see President Theodore Roosevelt, in front of a cloud-filled sky. In this way, he is saving the planet from above. The red clouds indicate how damaged the planet is. Therefore, it is his job from above to lead us to the way to save the planet.


I made this piece in order to shed light on the threats posed to animals in the age of climate change. I chose to paint a polar bear rather than a person because I believe a polar bear embodies climate change and habitat loss. It is important that we understand the detrimental effects of climate change on our environment and fellow creatures and try to stop it. This is our home and we should preserve it as best as we possibly can.  

I painted the polar bear facing the viewer, as his environment closes in. This is to show that the only solution for climate change is humans coming together and preserving our Earth.  


This piece examines the nature of systemic poverty in the United States. Poverty today is no accident. Unfair policy and legislation have subjected far too many Americans, especially those who are people of color, to unfair living conditions with little way out. Drastic change needs to be taken to provide adequate help and standards of living for all Americans.  


This artwork is made to spread awareness about Islamophobia. During the past couple of years, Islamophobia has been at its peak and people have started to make matters worse for Muslims. There have also been a lot of protests in regards to Islamophobia. I decided to paint the Badshahi Masjid because it’s a Muslim mosque, which is a place in which Muslims pray peacefully. It is a reminder that Islamophobia needs to come to an end.


In this artwork, I was trying to have a brown color concept. I wanted it to represent people of color.  


This is a portrait of Eugene Lee Yang, who is an activist for LGBTQ+ rights. He often holds fundraisers on Try Guy videos for the Trevor Project, a project that has the goal of helping and protecting LGBTQ youth from harm. When he's not conducting fundraisers in videos, he likes to show off some LGBTQ representation in those videos. I am a huge fan of the amount of love and effort he put into his coming out video, where he came out as gay.  I recommend watching it, since it's very creative how each color of the pride flag shows a different aspect about the LGBTQ community.


My painting is of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As I thought of climate change and the state of the world today, I remembered AOC's "People Are Dying" speech. She was one of the first people I listened to with captivation as she spoke about the direness of our climate and the frustration from the lack of help and action despite the obvious horrors. At that moment, I felt like she was the only congresswoman who had understood what needed to get done–our beacon of hope. I painted her in a painterly style, using neutral greens and contrasting red hues to illustrate her dedication to climate change and fight for the people.  


This painting is an homage to Gisèle Halimi, who was a Tunisian-French lawyer. She advocated for abortion rights, toughened laws on rape, and abolished the death penalty in France. She started out her career by defending Algerian soldiers and nationalists who were arrested during the Algerian War for independence. Later on, she also founded the association Choisir La Cause Des Femmes (Choose the Cause of Women) for abortion rights in the majorly Catholic France. She represented a minor girl in court who was raped and wanted to get an abortion, where she changed a lot of the French public's mind on the subject. She died in July 28th of 2020. This painting was made to represent everything she stood for without losing the focus on her, which is why there is such a contrast in the colors used in the background and the subject. Pink is the main color since she was a feminist icon, and there are loosely abstract elements of people or causes she fought for. When making this painting, I wanted to show how strong and powerful she was to protect the people in need.


This is a portrait of Ishmael Beah, a Sierra Leonean author and human rights activist for children affected by war. When I first read his memoir, "A Long Way Gone," I was struck by the horrors he faced. At the tender age of twelve, Beah's village was attacked and he was taken away from his family to become a soldier during a civil war in his country.  Hence the title, "Survivor." He was rescued afterward by UNICEF, and after the experience had dedicated his time to healing, and advocating for other young prisoners of war. 

The process of painting this piece was a new experience for me since I hardly worked with acrylic before. I thought about what would be a good way to sum up this amazingly strong person I was portraying, so I ended up using hues of blue to highlight the sorrows he faced. The background of the sunset is meant to set up a wistful sentiment, since Beah had his childhood stolen from him at the hands of injustice. Yet he was able to overcome his horrific situation, and rise to a new day. 


I chose to paint a portrait of Michelle Obama because she is someone who I have always looked up to. She is an advocate for several issues, one being equal access to education. Her program, Global Girls Alliance, seeks to empower girls through education and provide them with an equal opportunity to learn. I find her work to be extremely inspiring and have learned so much from her.  It was a very rewarding experience to be able to paint her portrait and I'm so happy with the way it turned out!  


Greta Thunberg has spread strong, necessary messages about the reality of climate change and global warming, a significant issue that impacts every living being on the planet to many across the world. The green background symbolizes the actions she is implementing in an attempt to make the earth green again, by spreading the urgency of taking this issue seriously. The words "Skolstrejk for Klimate" is Swedish for "strike for climate change,” one of her most significant messages, present in many of her posters. The shadow of the dead flower in her face is a symbol depicting the idea that many are treating climate change as if this is a shadow, (not real) but what they are forgetting is that a shadow is a reflection of reality and climate change is real.


Shades of purple reflect the natural raven depth of spoken-word poet Aranya Johar's hair; hair that is soft and Indian not unlike my own. Yellows compliment the purple, and ignite the browns in Johar's skin. It is her pigment that she fights for, verbally slashing at skin lightening brands like India-based "Fair and Lovely.”  Johar's poem, "A Brown Girl's Guide to Beauty," was the cherry on top of a day's worth of research into colorism–which is, unbelievably, still a prevalent social issue. I focus so intensely on colorism because it bewilders me how skin tone, something that can connect a people, a culture, a shared history, and is a weapon of pride that threatens the face of systematic racism, still manages to further divide us because we can't rid ourselves of the "lighter is prettier" complex that has been imbued in our mentalities since the era of European exploration.  

Whatever the root cause, there is no reason for it to still be around. We are living in a wonderful awakening of racial justice, but we are hypocrites to think that we can fight against racism and still not be wholly appreciative of every single skin tone on this planet; to ignore the prejudice within our own communities and homes. I was taught to love myself completely, but the so-called complex is omnipresent in my West Indian family, even in those younger than myself. It is omnipresent in Bollywood, and many other Asian industries. It is omnipresent in the West Indies and much of South America. So, I chose Aranya Johar in the midst of a passionate recitation of her famous poem, caught in a moment in which she looks over the mike and out at the world, dark brown eyes telling the story of an issue that desperately needs more attention. My culture, history, and identity are all a part of my skin, so why does it need to be fair to be lovely? Brown and lovely suits me better.  


I made a painting of my best friend, who was in a car accident a couple months ago and based it off of a photo I had of her. She and her family are fine, but it was still a terrifying experience for her and I wanted to make something for her that she would like. Car accidents aren’t an exact social issue, but I still thought that they were important to talk about and address. No matter the cause of the car crash, either texting while driving or being under the influence or simply taking your eye off the road for one second, this can change everything. She is someone that I’ve always viewed as really strong.  She went through a lot with that experience and I wanted to approach this issue through art.


Too young, how many times have I heard that ... 

What does it mean to be a teenager? We want to be heard, to be the center of attention, we are impulsive and we want to act, solve all the world's problems as if it were that easy. 

But there is a problem that steals all our attention, the great climate change, at this point I think you have already heard about it. However, this conflict has shown us something that others have not, that it doesn't matter how old or young you are to act. 

Alexandria Villaseñor is a young climate activist (She's 15 years old, my age!) and the founder of Earth Uprising, a community of young people that take action against climate change. One of its principles is "We recognize that the smallest action can have the largest results. All actions are important regardless of their size. Doing something is always better than doing nothing." It's very inspiring and shows that your age doesn't stop you from making a change. 


I choose to paint Greta Thunberg because she is a 17-year-old climate change activist that I find inspirational. The climate crisis is a very serious issue that I think should be talked about more. Greta has spoken on this problem multiple times and has made a huge difference. Her influence on the world stage has been described as the "Greta effect" and she has received numerous awards.


I painted a portrait of Rhiana Gunn Wright, the Climate Policy Director at the Roosevelt Institute, who helped craft legislation such as the Green New Deal. I painted the portrait in acrylic paint. I decided to paint her because the work she's done and the bills she helped craft are super important to the US government.


I chose to paint a portrait of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because she has advocated for immigrants’ rights. I chose to paint signs behind her that share her views and opinions on immigration. On the poster in the back on the left says ‘#Green New Deal’, the poster in front of it says ‘Humanitarian Aid for the Northern Triangle’, the poster in the back on the right says ‘Get rid of Cages’ and the poster in front says ‘Repeal Section 1325 & 1326.’ She has spoken about immigration being beneficial to the US and so she believes in a process where immigrants have an easier path to residency and citizenship. I chose to have a blue background because I felt it made the rest of the colors pop as she wouldn’t blend in with the background and because the color blue symbolizes unity. It’s meant to show how she is advocating for a system that unifies immigrants and American citizens. 


This captivating, bold, and eccentric piece honors Xiye Bastida, a Mexican-Chilean and indigenous NYC climate activist. (Her intersectional identity includes being a member of the Otomi-Toltec Nation, an indigenous nation native to Mexico.) Media and politics concerning climate change are primarily focused on white voices. However, people of color and women of color, like Bastida, are also drawing attention to these climate change issues that largely impact poor or underdeveloped parts of the world, often where people of color reside. Bastida herself experienced the devastation of climate change in her hometown of San Pedro Tultepec in 2015 through extreme flooding. It is vital to acknowledge their voices, opinions, experiences, and efforts in this discussion. I also chose to paint Xiye Bastida because she is sometimes overshadowed by Greta Thunberg or called “New York’s Greta Thunberg.” This is harmful to both of the talented activists since their stories, experiences, and efforts are different even when they are united, fighting for the same cause. 

This painting was quite difficult for me as it was my first time using acrylic paints. However, I found joy in attempting a new art medium and challenging myself to grow as an artist. I loved sketching out the portrait, paying attention to the highlights in her hair, the different shades on her face, and smaller details like the mole on her cheek. I also enjoyed mixing the paints to achieve the various colors I desired. Slowly, after trusting the process, everything came together; the painting began to take shape as I filled in different sections with paint, one-by-one, and added finishing touches like black outlines or white highlights. For the background, I chose to paint it a dark green color in an attempt to embody this powerful and inspiring quote: "For me, being an environmental activist and a climate justice activist is not a hobby, it’s a way of life.”


My painting depicts one of the Hermanas Mirabal, Teresa-Maria Mirabal. She and her sisters hold a dear place in my heart as they are some of the most honorable women from my island, The Dominican Republic, and specifically the town my family and I are from, Salcedo. The butterflies are symbolic of her other two sisters and I took the inspiration from their nickname "the butterflies" that was given to them because of their beauty and grace. It's also reflected in the novel titled "The Time of The Butterflies" written by Julia Alvarez. Most if not all of the pictures taken of the sisters are in black and white so I decided to try and emulate what I imagine she would present herself as with the tones of mature reds and vibrant blue background. The white messy boarder surrounding her is representative of how she and her sisters broke free of President Trujillo's grasp as strong and powerful women.


"A woman who doesn't care what men think of her - ah, this is dangerous. This is the worst conceivable insult to the male ego." I painted Martha Shelly, a 77-year-old feminist and lesbian activist, writer, and poet who participated in the Stonewall Riots. Her words redefined the pride movement, fighting historical lesbian erasure and helping to erase stigma surrounding sexual orientation. She refuses to alter her identity under the male gaze and the patriarchy, inspiring countless others to find their voices and live shamelessly alongside her.  

Heroes like Martha Shelly pave the way for young women today to be loud and unapologetic. This quote by Martha Shelly will always be remembered: "I discovered that I could take a risk and survive. I could march in Philadelphia. I could go out in the street and be gay even in a dress or a skirt without getting shot. Each victory gave me courage for the next one." 


Fred Hampton is pictured in this piece. I decided to paint him after I read a book called “the Assassination of Fred Hampton'' by Jeffrey Haas, which is about Hampton, his life, his assassination, and the court battle for justice for him. I finished the book greatly admiring of Fred Hampton, for how deeply dedicated he was to people and the struggle for the liberation of black Americans and all oppressed peoples. I was and am in awe of Fred, his ability to engage people with his words, his magnetic quality of leadership, and of how much revolutionary work he did by the mere age of 21, when he was assassinated by the U.S. government.   

Fred Hampton was an NAACP Youth Chapter Leader as a teenager and then Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. I decided to include a quote in the painting because it shows what Fred and the BPP were fighting for the liberation of all oppressed, power-stripped people in the world, for the ability for them to have power over the circumstances and affairs of their lives. Also pictured in the image are power fists strung to a marionette handle, and the fists working together to free themselves from the control of the large hand of power. This represents oppressed, enslaved people struggling towards their liberation from the control of the few who hold a greatly disproportionate amount of power, the power to determine the lives of the masses (to an extent). 


My piece is of a young factory worker in India. Behind her are pieces of scrap fabric made to look like the landfills full of unwanted clothes that we have throughout the world. This girl has wasted her childhood working in a factory only for the clothes to end up in a landfill and harming our environment.


This artwork is Greta Thumberg, and she is a global rights activist. Global warming is a worldwide issue that is usually overlooked by others. Greta Thumberg put this situation in the light for all to see and show how it is a big adversity. When I first chose her, it was because I am familiar with the topic of global warming, and when I thought about it some more, she came to mind. She holds some importance in my memory because someone as young as I am, she is standing up with a big voice and making changes.



A 30-second online art project:
Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Sky/World Death/World

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