A new art program will offer "refuge" to LGTBQIA+ students in Northwest Arkansas.
"With the word 'refuge,' we really wanted to highlight how this is a completely safe, nonjudgmental space for these kids to be in. This isn't about judgment at all, and it's not about competing for anything or in-fighting. It's all about understanding and peace and giving those kids a place in which to feel understood and to connect with each other," says Taylor Johnson, the gallery manager for Fenix Arts and a program coordinator at Mount Sequoyah.
Funded by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, the program will be open to local LGTBQIA+ students ages 12 and older.
"I was picked to lead the program, which was a huge honor," Johnson says. Prior to working at Mount Sequoyah, where she was instrumental in coordinating the current exhibit, "QUEER," at Fenix, Johnson worked in a youth program for students on the south side of Chicago during the pandemic -- and wore several hats as a substitute teacher and tutor.
"It was awesome. It was a great time. I miss those kids a bunch," she says of that time. For the Fenix Youth Refuge Experience After School Arts Program, she'll be creating a safe and supportive space for marginalized youth who are navigating identity against the backdrop of junior high and high school.
"Registration for the program will open July 11. The first day of the program will be Aug. 22. So it'll be the second week of school, we want to give kids time to settle in to a new year, a new semester. The program will be Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The kids will come in, have a snack, be introduced to the artists and what they're doing. And we'll have about an hour of work time with the artist," Johnson explains. "Each semester, we will have one artist teaching a week, kind of rotating the kids out. So everybody has equal chance and opportunity to do everything. And then at the end of each semester, we will have a exhibition or a showcase of the work that was done that semester. It'll be for students, parents, teachers, just the community to see the kinds of things that they create."
Johnson expects that this first iteration of the program will have mostly junior high and high school students participating, but hopes the program grows to include 12 and younger eventually.
"I'm proud to say that all but two artists are LGBT. And those two that are not LGBT are Mount Sequoyah staff members. That's a big point of pride for me to have that kind of mentorship and expertise."
She adds that she also has a personal connection to this project.
"Growing up in a small town, where identities like mine aren't super accepted, this is something that I really wish I had, and would have kept me out of a lot of dark places had I had it," Johnson explains. "Parents may bring their kids to this program, and really not understand their kid or not understand their kid's identity, and this is a way that we can kind of bridge the gap, give parents a moment to reflect and really see the artwork ... physically see how these kids feel on the inside and how they want to express themselves."