High school students get real-life experience creating art in the LAB

Daniela Cruz, 16, left, and Catie Schwartzman, 17, put the finishing touches on pieces of a sculpture they're building for their first group exhibition through the LAB: Locust Art Builders program. Opening night is on Saturday, July 9, at Locust Projects in Miami's Design District.
Daniela Cruz, 16, left, and Catie Schwartzman, 17, put the finishing touches on pieces of a sculpture they're building for their first group exhibition through the LAB: Locust Art Builders program. Opening night is on Saturday, July 9, at Locust Projects in Miami's Design District. For the Miami Herald

In white rooms in Miami’s Design District, teenage girls are using power tools — nail guns and circular electric saws — to make art structures for their first group exhibition on July 9. Some of the 23 high school juniors and seniors, mostly girls, have little to no art, nonetheless construction, experience. They come from 10 different public, private and art high schools, from all over Miami-Dade and they’re here for a month-long program called LAB, Locust Art Builders, in which students collaborate with one another on making a professional exhibit centered on a theme they collectively decide.

In between the snaps and sharp pops of nail guns, used to make a fake brick wall from plywood, Miami Beach Senior High student Sam Hafferty, 17, explains what her group’s piece and the whole concept of the exhibition is about.

“It deals with human communication and dis-communication in the digital age,” she says. “We’re trying to get people to look at how ridiculous our current means of communication are and how separated we’re becoming from our physical being. We’re more attached to objects and materials. We hope people understand that they’re one person, not many different people like an Instagram screen name or a Facebook account — that they should reflect that within their own personality and online.”

The brick wall is one way she and her peers are making this message tangible. Other groups are making inflatables and sculptures, while others are making videos of how people in public use their phones.

“When you’re on the phone, you’re not talking to a person, you’re talking to an object. So we have the old-school cups for communication, which we’re attaching to strings on the brick wall. (In the exhibit), we’re going to welcome people to speak into the cups so it’s kind of like you’re talking to an object — you’re talking to a brick wall.”

LAB is now in its seventh year and brings in two mentors to help guide students’ ideas from concept to fruition.

“We’re trying to kick them forward to being at the level of a professional artist,” says mentor and multimedia artist Monica Lopez de Victoria. “This is a program that’s purely driven by them — their ideas, direction and passion are what’s pushing it forward. They have to work together to figure it out.”

She says her role and that of the other artist mentor, Francesco Lo Castro, is to help inspire them and “guide them away from traditional ideas.”

Some of the ways they do this is by bringing in local artists or people in the arts community to talk about what they do and their journey of how they overcame challenges. Through LAB, students can also be set up with internships with local galleries or art festivals. On a recent day, III Forks founder David Sinopoli talked with the students about his journey from clueless college student to leading one of Miami’s fastest growing art, music and technology festivals.

“There are multiple levels of things happening,” Lopez de Victoria said. “Aside from creating the show, there’s professional development like learning about career options and showing them how to get to their dreams.”

Her motto is to do, then think — an experimental approach. “Sometimes the action of making helps them understand what they’re thinking about. The two sides have to work their way together: concept and actual physical, structural stuff. The work starts speaking back to them.”

“We don’t give them a topic,” she says, “We just help pull it out of them and help them understand how to communicate their ideas more clearly or more innovatively. They’re all in high school so they’re used to making work for school or making little doodles for themselves, but this is a much bigger thing and they have to go much deeper.”

Hafferty talks about how she’s evolved since the first day of the program: “I’ve never made anything, like an actual structure, before. The resources that are available to us give us unlimited opportunities. It makes my ideas endless since I have all this help and all these resources to work with.”

Though various backgrounds of talent and perspectives are the group’s strength, Hafferty says it’s also one of the biggest challenges. “We all come from different schools so we have different levels of knowledge when it comes to art. It’s kind of like a language barrier. Monica tells us to make first and then present. With visuals, it’s easier to understand — it’s universal when you look at something as opposed to describing a concept.”

Locust Projects Executive Director Chana Sheldon is one of the people who launched LAB seven years ago. She says the idea came about as a way to give back to artists.

“Locust has always been a place where for many years, artist support was the critical aspect of keeping us going. We’ve seen our first generation of Miami artists go off and grow. This is the next generation and we really want to prepare them.”

She and the mentors believe the program is a catalyst in jump-starting artists’ careers.

“It gave me the confidence to continue with the arts,” said former student Allison Bouganim, 18, who was hired by Locust to assist with the LAB program. “I learned more about art galleries and interned with renowned artists. It was the best experience.”

Locust was founded by three Miami-based artists in 1998 and was one of the first art spaces to set up shop in a Wynwood warehouse — though it wasn’t called Wynwood at the time. It’s one of the longest running experimental art spaces in Miami.

“When we moved into the Design District,” says Sheldon, “a lot of students from DASH and New World were coming in and working with us as interns, volunteers, or helping out artists when they were installing work. It became clear that this was the next generation of Miami artists and there was more that we could do for them. So we established this program.”

Initial funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Children’s Trust made this program free for students. Now, funding from Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Chapman Foundation extends that offer.

“Every year, there’s an open-call to students across the county,” Sheldon said. “There are students that apply from DASH and New World who have an art background and students applying from public schools where they’ve had exposure to one art class — and so what happens is we get a real diversity in both their experience and their background. Together, they come up with a collaborative concept and figure out how execute it.”

“We’re throwing everything that we can at them in terms of what’s going on in the contemporary art world right now,” Sheldon said. “From field trips where they get to visit smaller artist-run spaces and local galleries, to meeting curators and those who head art shipping companies … they’re getting a lot of different perspectives and exposure of how the art world functions and what there is to do within it.”

If you go

▪ What: Opening reception for LAB: Locust Art Builders’ exhibition

▪ When: Saturday, July 9, from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Exhibition on view through July 30, 2016.

▪ Where: 3852 N. Miami Ave., 33127 (in Miami’s Design District)

▪ Contact: (305) 576-8570; email:; website: