Cultivating young artists to thrive in a creative world

Akhi Vadari, a sophomore at Eastlake High School in Washington state, is a 2018 YoungArts Finalist in dance.
Akhi Vadari, a sophomore at Eastlake High School in Washington state, is a 2018 YoungArts Finalist in dance. lwsd.org

Art has a resonance. In its creator, it begins as a ripple of an idea, grows into a flurry of thought before it is expressed in an explosion of kinetic energy: of pencil to page, lips to reed or hand to clay. The physical manifestation of that original idea grows, and like a loom, it weaves a tapestry that spreads through all who encounter it, binding us as we each take away something different — at worst, indifference; at best, something transformative.

I fancied myself a writer and theater maker 19 years ago. A senior at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, I was contemplating my future and how art making would fit into it, when I received a letter in the mail. Months prior, I had submitted a play to a competition, and this letter declared that I, out of more than 4,000 other high school students, had something special — that my art had made an impact. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that letter was a welcome into an organization that had been fostering young artists since 1981 — one that would forever change the trajectory of my life.

When the National YoungArts Foundation, then known as the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts,  was founded, its mission was simple: to find the next generation of American artists and support them at critical junctures in their careers. Over the course of the past 37 years, artists such as Terence Blanchard, Viola Davis, Denyce Graves, Josh Groban, Matt Bomer, Doug Aitken, Kerry Washington, Jared Padalecki, Timothée Chalamet and almost 20,000 other artists have all received the same letter that I did, validating our choices to make art at a young age and encouraging us to look to the creative industries as we began careers.

For more than three decades, YoungArts has welcomed the next generation of great artists to Miami each January for a week of dialogue, mentorship and no-holds-barred artistic exploration, creating a space for artists to thrive and make work that resonates.

The young artists who have come through our program have created lifelong friendships and collaborations that started at YoungArts. Denzel Boyd (2014 winner in visual arts), Joseph Webb (1996 winner in dance) and Tyler Rabinowitz (2011 winner in cinematic arts) collaborated on a film and design project that won an Adobe Design Achievement Award in 2017. Elliott Skinner (2013 winner in voice), Ben Lusher (2010 winner in voice) and Richard Saunders (2008 winner in voice), formed Thirdstory after meeting through YoungArts and have spent the past few years touring the country with Tori Kelly and Chance The Rapper. Grammy nominee Dave Eggar (1987 winner in classical music) and tap dancer Andrew Nemr (1997 winner in dance) are longtime artistic partners, creating interdisciplinary performances in music and dance and recording together.

In addition to creating a network of collaborators, the threads that YoungArts began to weave in 1981 have formed a community that is not just rich in artistic excellence and collaboration, but also one that retains a deep commitment to give back to other young artists looking to walk where they themselves have dared to tread.

Reecently, renowned visual artist and 1999 YoungArts winner Daniel Arsham came to us with an idea to launch one of the most significant opportunities to date for early career artists. For the next three years, the Daniel Arsham Fellowship, presented by the Ridinger-McLaughlin Family, will support one emerging visual artist per year. Thanks to Arsham’s generosity, our inaugural recipient, 2011 YoungArts winner SHENEQUA, will receive an unrestricted award of $25,000 and a year of mentorship from Arsham himself.

When he began developing a new film project, YoungArts alumnus and award-winning filmmaker Andrew Hevia (2003 winner in cinematic arts) employed other YoungArts alumni as crewmembers. Academy Award winner Doug Blush (1984 winner in cinematic arts) regularly hires alums as interns and production assistants on his documentary projects, and award-winning choreographers Desmond Richardson and Camille Brown (1986 and 1997 winners in dance respectively) feature a regular rotation of up-and-coming YoungArts dance alumni in their respective companies.

This month, the 2018 YoungArts Finalists, representing the organization’s highest award level, will learn from some of the greatest master artists working today, including YoungArts alumni spanning the classes of ’81 to ’04. In fact, almost 20 percent of the master artists coming to Miami to mentor this year’s winners are YoungArts alumni, including musician Tom Williams (1981 winner in jazz), pianist Elizabeth Roe (2000 winner in classical music), architect Chat Travieso (2003 winner in visual art & U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts), visual artist Jean Shin (1990 winner in visual arts & U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts), author Christopher Castellani (1990 and 1992 winner in writing) and Academy Award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (1999 winner in theater), who will also be honored at the Backyard Ball with the Arison Alumni Award, among others.  

Starting Jan. 8, we will welcome these alumni home, as well as 166 young artists from around the country, many from this community, for a week of artistic immersion, exhibitions and performances (Visit youngarts.org for more information.) I invite members of the community to join us and see the world through the eyes, sounds and words of a group of young artists that will shape our collective future.

Rebekah Lanae Lengel is a 2000 YoungArts winner in writing. She returned to the National YoungArts Foundation in 2016 as the director of artistic programs.