Taking two buses and riding her bike, Allison Bouganim traveled 25 miles every day for three weeks, from her home in Sunny Isles to Locust Projects, an art gallery in the Design District, to participate in a program where high school students are responsible for creating an original exhibition, from the conceptual stages to the installation.
“It was really important to me and there were a lot of people that had cars or parents to drive them and they sometimes didn’t show up,” said Allison, 16, a student at Design and Architecture Senior High.
The project, Locust Art Builders, is an intensive summer program that has introduced close to 100 high school students in the last five years to the multi-faceted world of contemporary art.
“Locust LAB is an opportunity for young artists to get real-life exhibition experience and to get a deep understanding, or at least an introduction, to the way the contemporary art world functions,” said Chana Sheldon, Locust Project’s executive director and chief curator.
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The program began in 2010 with 10 high school students. This year, 24 students from 17 high schools across Miami-Dade County participated in Locust Art Builders. The students had to come up with a concept for the exhibition and create enough pieces to fill the 5,000-square-foot gallery. With the help of two artist mentors, Monica Lopez De Victoria and Loriel Beltran, who were past exhibiting artists at Locust Projects, students were given free rein to decide what to create.
“It could have very much failed,” Lopez De Victoria said. “They were on their own. We helped guide and gave advice. We don’t want it to fail, but it has the potential of not working.”
On the first day, students met and immediately began creating a flier for the exhibit before they even knew what the concept of their exhibition was going to be.
“Thankfully, this year, their flier actually reflected their exhibition very well,” Lopez De Victoria said. “This was kind of the first time that ever happened.”
Students visited art galleries and museums, like Pérez Art Museum Miami in downtown Miami and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. They were introduced to experienced artists, museum curators and art collectors.
“Whether they end up volunteering at a place like Locust Projects or end up interning for a museum or decide to become a curator, this is about understanding all the different ways you can get involved in the arts,” Sheldon said.
For the first two weeks, students pitched ideas and experimented with different materials and art forms but could not decide on a concept until four days before the opening reception.
“For 25 kids to work hard on something, they have to be passionate about it. You can’t make a concept that everyone doesn’t agree on,” said David Baptiste, a junior at Design and Architecture Senior High.
The young artists agreed on a concept of digital natives, a term that describes a person born or brought up during the digital age and who is comfortable with technology. Their art physically represents digital landscapes.
“When you think of digital landscapes, you think of images like Tron where the undefined world is gridded out into a more understandable view,” Lopez De Victoria said. “So they are making physical pieces out of the unphysical digital world.”
Students used pastel yarns, wood, plaster, metallic grids and cables to construct their pieces. The windows were covered in iridescent paper that cast blue and pink light onto the reception area of the gallery.
“I think the show they made this year is incredibly cohesive, visually and conceptually, for a group of 25 students. It’s not easy to do,” Sheldon said.
The students pulled through, but David, 17, said the collaboration process was a challenge.
“Artists have pretty big egos and they all want their visions to be out there,” he said.
Throughout the collaboration process, students had to present their ideas to one another and sell their vision for the exhibition and art pieces. Allison learned to improve from her peers’ well-thought-out suggestions, but critiques were not always civil.
“Everybody had very strong opinions about different things,” Allison said. “A lot of us didn’t know what battles to fight and which ones to let go. And since people were so strong about their ideas it was very hard to compromise.”
Despite the tensions, at a young age the students accomplished something that some artists don’t get to experience until much later in their careers, if at all.
“No one realized that this was their exhibition until the last week,” David said. “You don’t grasp that. This is an exhibition that you, a teenager, are going to make.”
Locust Art Builders is a jump-start for these young artists’ careers. One LAB alum, Lino Fernandez, moved on to study fine arts at Cooper Union in New York on a full scholarship, has sold art and is working on his third solo exhibition in New York City.
Fernandez, 20, also donates art for Locust Project’s Smash and Grab fundraiser.
“Locust was like a family figure for me,” Fernandez said. “I grew up with them.” He is grateful for the opportunities Locust Projects afforded him, and he feels a sense of responsibility in giving back to them and continuing to foster a relationship with the gallery and staff.
“I can honestly say I would not be where I am today without Locust,” he said. “To this day, when I envision a future of work, it is in the context of the Locust Projects gallery space.”
And Locust Projects doesn’t just help young, emerging artists. Since 2005, it has hosted 70 exhibitions — from psychedelic pop art to social commentary exhibitions on female subjugation — by established local and out-of-state artists.
“We hardly ever say no to artists,” Sheldon said. “We’re the place they come to tear up the floors and hang crazy things from the ceilings and reshape the walls, and they know that’s what we’re here for.”
Locust Projects is dedicated to giving visual artists a place to experiment with their art and ideas without the pressures of gallery sales and the limitations of traditional exhibition spaces.
The art space was founded in 1998 by three Miami-based artists — Elizabeth Withstandley, Westen Charles and Brian Cooper.
“We were one of the first galleries to emerge in what is now a very active Wynwood Arts District,” Sheldon said.
By 2000, Locust Projects had its first board of directors and became incorporated. In 2002, the organization was recognized as a not-for-profit institution.
Locust Projects was created by artists for artists, and their mission is to offer a creative space where artists can make their own decisions and not be told what they should do.
“There’s a real freedom here,” Sheldon said. “There’s a freedom for us to respond to the needs and interests of the community, and there’s a freedom for the artist to come in and meet the supporters of the community, see art, meet artists and have accessibility.”