Thursday, July 10, 2008

THE ART OF STARTING ARTISTS

I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve walked the stretch of Court Street between President street and Atlantic Ave. Over the past several months, one storefront in particular caught my eye. The window was covered by multiple signs with the words Starting Artists. I couldn’t see what was going on inside and my curiosity was picqued.

After Mike came back from their Grand Opening, I decided to give them a call. On the phone, I got a warm, friendly reception from founder and executive director Marisa Catalina Casey. When I showed up for the interview, she greeted me with great enthusiasm and gave me a tour of the space, obviously proud of the well-organized, cheerful loft-like environment that she and her crew had mapped out ahead of time. She pointed out features like computers for young people to work at and a backyard garden where teenagers had planted a little assortment of flowers and plants.

The mission of Starting Artists? “To benefit under-served teenagers in Brooklyn, NY through hands-on training in the arts and entrepreneurship. SA’s free after-school classes in media arts and business prepare youth to create arts-based enterprises.”

Pretty awesome, right?

Here’s a bit more about SA’s story as revealed through my interview with Marisa:

Q: What are the roots of Marisa’s entrepreneurial and artistic spirit?

A: Marisa’s mom was the founder and executive director of aninternational adoption agency for more than 30 years. So in that respect, she modeled the entrepreneurial spirit well. At the same time, Marisa’s folks, like many others, were concerned that their child would not be self-supporting by taking the road of an artist.

Q: What was Marisa’s inspiration for putting together Starting Artists?

A: Marisa points out that she named her organization Starting Artists, not Starving Artists, for a reason. She knows the importance of setting an encouraging tone for young people who, like herself, are engaged in the arts and want to be engaged at different levels.

There’s a big message out there for young people that the arts are not a valid way to make a living. The reality, according to Marisa, is that the skills you have as an artist are critical ones to have in any job. Creativity is a huge access in the workplace.

Marisa herself is walking proof that it pays to stay true to the path of the artist: she has set up this amazing non-profit, which is just one of many notable projects that she has initiated. (See her profile on her website to learn more.)

Q: What roles can adults play in helping young people find tools and steps to go towards careers in the arts?

A: According to Marisa, there are several roles adults can play. First, they can either be a mentor or help a young person find a mentor in the area/s of interest. Second, adults can let young artists know that their voice and creativity matter. Encourage risk-taking! Help young people see that they can channel their creativity and arts-related skills into all subject matters and jobs. Finally, adults can reserve their judgments and predictions about whether or not a young person’s artistry will lead to success or starvation.

Q: Why did Marisa pick teenagers as the population to work with?

A: Teens have an energizing effect on Marisa. They remind her of the possibility of being open to the world. Also, teens have a certain skill level where they can capitalize on tools made available to them, digital tools being one example. At 12 and 13, they carry a lot of media savvy and they’re excited about working in video, print, and digital media. “They’re at the perfect age to deconstruct newspapers and newsmakers, to unravel media messages,” shares Marisa.

Marisa’s confidence in young peoples’ ability to learn and do is evident in the wide array of skills she is teaching them, including business basics: budgeting, public relations, marketing, and fundraising. She takes them to cultural institutions all over New York so they can talk to the people who are already doing these things.

Q: Where would Marisa like the organization to be a year from now?

A: Marisa would like to have a core group of committed students who stay with her program throughout their teenage years. She hopes to expand the Starting Artists family/community building even more partnerships with local businesses and arts organizations. Finally, she’d like to help students who come through her organization to find paid projects in the arts.

Q: What is at the heart of the work Marisa does?

A: Marisa’s aim is to provide the same kind of encouragement, help, and challenge which she, as a young person, received from mentors. Marisa is emphatic about the centrality of the arts to our lives: “The arts should not be set aside as an extra. They are part of being a well-rounded human. Over the course of history, people have tried to remove art from life. Look at The Crusades. We have to make sure that young people have plenty of opportunities.”

Marisa’s motto for the organization reflects that she is serious about providing these opportunities: “Get inspired. Get creative. Get to work!”

Contact info for Starting Artists: 211 Smith St., info@startingartists.org, 718-701-5483
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