words by Allyson Smith, photos by Arts LIFT students

When Elisa Gargarella and Marissa McClellan were told that there would be no Arts LIFT program this summer because of COVID-19, they were bummed, to say the least. 

Elisa, co-director of Arts LIFT and Art Bomb Brigade at the University of Akron, said it didn’t feel right. “We were like… ‘we have to do something creative, or we’re not gonna make it.’”

The Arts LIFT program started 19 years ago when the University of Akron received a request from the Lola Isra Fund for Teens to create a “summer camp experience” for Akron Public Schools students interested in art education. In summers past, high school students would come to campus to work with a resident artist on a public art installation. 

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“One of the main pedagogical reasons for that is to give kids some leadership opportunities and some opportunities to get some recognition for their work,” Gargarella explains. “Public art, rather than in the classroom or on a refrigerator. [That] really didn’t get the word out that these young people are the ambassadors of the next generation of creatives, game changers.” 

Over many summers, students have learned to work with all kinds of mediums, including glass sculptures, metal work, ceramics, murals and much more.

“You name it, the kids have done it,” Gargarella says.

In the past couple years, Arts LIFT has worked alongside Art Bomb Brigade — another program hosted by the University of Akron and co-directed by Gargarella and McClellan — to create projects such as the mural at The Well CDC in Middlebury, the “Keep it Simple” mural in Highland Square, and the mural at the laundromat on South Main Street.

According to McClellan, this year they went back to working with high schoolers alone to give them more one-on-one instruction. 

“It allows us a little bit more time one-on-one with our high school kids, and the opportunity to sort of get closer with them, build better relationships and have a greater impact on their creativity, their leadership, their advocacy, and their growth,” Gargarella says. “We also liked for it to serve as a training ground for kids who are interested in the arts.”

Usually, Arts LIFT would be a two-week program with eight-hour sessions each day. However, this year, the program had to be online, which has been challenging.

“It’s really hard to teach something like photography like this,” McClellan explains “So a lot of this is like resource overload. Like, look at this photographer, watch this video, look at this resource, play with this. And just offering a lot, a lot, a lot of resources and a lot of visual support.”

Dan Coffield, a visual arts instructor at Firestone High School and an Arts LIFT educator, created this year’s format.

“We thought, hey, this might be a cool opportunity to set up a Google classroom, have Google meetings, set up scenarios or assignments that the students can read about, do short instructional videos, provide them with links and websites that they can go and visit, so that they can get more content and information than what we’re providing. So that way, they can do a little bit of their own research and then share with us.”

Coffield pointed out that because they are not meeting students in person, they have only been able to get to know them through their artwork, “which was kind of cool.” 

But there are some drawbacks to the online format. “It’s not like they were in photography classes, or it’s not like they’re getting one-on-one instruction with a muralist who might be like, ‘No, don’t hold the brush this way. Hold the brush this way,” Coffield says.

“It just solidifies our feelings about hands-on education and face-to-face education being the most effective means, particularly in the arts, and maybe in life, to develop mentorships and demonstrations and show by doing,” Gargarella adds. “Arts LIFT’s goal is to get kids from all different backgrounds, who may not have access to the arts when there’s a pay-to-play structure in place for most enrichment activities in our county and our world, where kids have to have money to take a summer art class or join a camp. We’ve never been about that.”

Students say they’ve benefited from Arts LIFT’s online format and one-on-one approach, in spite of the challenges that limited physical space and little face-to-face interaction present for students and instructors alike.

“My experience with this has been super good,” says Madison Morrow, an Arts LIFT program participant and soon-to-be senior at Ellet High School “I am having a lot of fun with taking pictures and editing. We are working on projects where we get to show ourselves, how we feel, and the people and places that help us cope during this time through photography. I am learning lots of different ways to take better pictures and to edit them to look nicer and have a better effect in the end.”

Elena Varner-Waltz, a junior at Firestone High School, commented on her positive experience with the digital Arts LIFT experience.

“It’s been really fun. I’ve gotten to do it with some of my friends from school too, so I can talk to them about pictures and stuff and we can talk about that. It’s really cool to see what other people have been working on,” Varner-Waltz says. “It’s helped me look at photos a different way and kind of like look at different things to photograph, but I never would have thought about photographing before or like different angles.”

She does say, however, it’s challenging to stay creative with such limited space.

“A lot of the photographs that I take are in the same general area. So you just have to kind of find different ways to view that area because we don’t go around much. A lot of the photographs that I take are at my house or at my grandparents house or in the Akron area,” says Varner-Waltz. “So you just have to look at ways to picture your area differently.”

This year’s Arts LIFT program focuses on the theme of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” 

“I was thinking about ‘every little thing is going to be alright.’ And I thought, if anybody demonstrates that in my experience, it’s the kids, as much as they’re affected by this, they’re also quite resilient and adaptable and cool,” Gargarella says. 

“For me, [the theme is] just kind of like a mantra to get me through this. Like, this isn’t going to be the entire rest of my life. This is only a little blip of it, and I can at least do something that I enjoy that takes my mind off of this. So this kind of gives me, I don’t know, like an hour that I enjoy, so I don’t get too mentally caught up in what’s going on,” Varner-Waltz adds.

In exploring the Three Little Birds theme, students take photos, respond to weekly writing prompts, and have discussions. The program this year ran for six weeks instead of two. Some of the themes have been “my rocks,” McClellan explains, or photographs of spaces where they find refuge. 

In the past, students would work with a local artist on a project, but because everything is online this year, it was up to the students to interpret the themes and guide creation on their own.

“The whole thing is based around what the pandemic has kind of done to reality and to everyday life,” McClellan says. “How has the overarching theme of all this, how has COVID impacted [you] during this time? And trying to document that or photograph that as you learn about photography as well. So they literally became the artist in regards to, they had to think about how to set up the compositions, how to think about lighting.”

In addition to exploring these themes, students are also learning about photography and its techniques.

“Every week, piggybacked on [to] what they’re photographing, are some things for them to think about in terms of their identity and growing confidence and taking care of themselves,” McClellan says.

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“This time it definitely probably became more about self discovery, growth, personal narrative. What’s the story that you have to say? What’s your voice and vision? …That independent voice and vision is crucial. It’s their voice to envision what other people want to see,” Coffield adds.

In the past, Arts LIFT has completed projects around Akron, such as the full wrap mural on the Akron Zoo’s outreach vehicle, ceramic benches in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and a rain barrel series with Keep Akron Beautiful, which were auctioned off to kick start a water conservation project. 

The jury is still out on how to showcase the students’ work at the end of the program, though program organizers have shared many ideas. 

In spite of Art LIFT’s pandemic-related challenges, Gargarella is excited about students engaging with the program’s theme and producing work that is reflective of their own experiences during the pandemic. Even though the program’s format has changed and doesn’t always include a hands-on element, Gargarella says this year’s theme, and the student work that it has helped produce, is more relevant than ever.

“Even if you’re experiencing things that are uncomfortable or heavy, that if you can keep the perspective that everything is going to be alright,” Gargarella says. “It may not be awesome. It may not be glorious, but it’s going to be alright.”

Allyson’s background is in media production and anthropology. Her hobbies include coffee, traveling, and taking months to read a single book.

Photos: Used with permission from ArtsLIFT. 

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