A young printmaker in the RAD workshop (Photo courtesy of RAW Art and Grace Whitlock.)
Funding for children's art programs has been on a well-documented decline for years now, but private and nonprofit programs remain bright beacons in the dark, offering hands-on programs that foster creativity and self-expression to those in greatest need. One such enterprise, RAW Art Works, located in the former industrial city of Lynn, Massachusetts, has used art to bring stability and opportunity to the community for over a quarter-century. When RAW first opened its doors in 1988, the staff worked primarily with incarcerated minors, harnessing the healing power of art as a kind of catharsis. Now the nonprofit encompasses two buildings in the heart of downtown Lynn, and welcomes over 1,200 children a year, ranging in age from seven to seventeen.
In 2013, executive director Kit Jenkins spoke with donors about how to celebrate RAW's 25th anniversary. "We focused on what our community needed from us," said Jenkins earlier this week. "I mentioned this to [proprietors of Boston-based Bromer Bookssellers] Anne and David Bromer, longstanding donors to our program, and Anne wondered how I felt about a letterpress. I hadn't thought of it before, but it was a perfect suggestion." At its core, RAW is art therapy, and in recent years the mission added a spoken word component to the lineup. "We saw this overwhelming need for better, clearer verbal expression," Jenkins continued. "These kids spend so much time texting that it negatively impacts their writing patterns, so we developed the Art of Words program where children incorporate writing into their art installations and film projects."
Working together yields great results. (Photo courtesy of RAW Art and Grace Whitlock.)
Storytelling is indeed at the heart of any artistic endeavor, and the writing component elevates the entire program at RAW. Incorporating a letterpress sounded great, but tipping the scales at over 1,000 pounds, these machines aren't exactly portable, and RAW didn't have enough space at the time. However, in a moment of total serendipity, the organization acquired the building adjacent to its original location, which included a fully-finished 2,000 square foot basement. "We set the print shop down there," Jenkins said. Now, in addition to all the necessary printing accoutrements, the shop houses two fully-functional Vandercook presses, one hailing from a Maine establishment, and the other from Western Massachusetts.
Setting up the print shop was a collaborative effort. John Kristensen of Boston-based Firefly Press orchestrated the sourcing and installation of the presses, while the Bromers funded the project. "Anne and David are totally committed to RAW," said Jenkins. "We are so grateful to them and that their vision is having such an impact in the lives of these children." As a way of saying thanks, Jenkins and the RAW team christened the new printshop RAD -- Raw+Anne+David -- and kept the name secret until the ribbon-cutting ceremony last November.
Since then, almost 350 of the six hundred children enrolled in RAW programs have taken a turn at the presses. "Most kids love it, others hate it, but that's normal," said Jenkins, who was also named Distinguished Educator of the Year by Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2008. "Printing broadsides, setting type, all that goes into letterpress printing requires patience, focus, and order, and some of our kids are impatient for results! Many, however, find the structured aspect of printing to be immensely therapeutic, because the printshop is the only place where there is structure and order in their lives." Now, when film students or painters want to promote their work, they drop by the print shop and commission broadsides custom-designed by fellow students.
Most of the children in these programs are from Lynn and surrounding environs, places where high crime rates and poverty pose significant roadblocks in their lives. Jenkins says RAWs overarching mission is helping children see beyond their immediate surroundings, that change is possible, and can be found in the arts. "We had a family that was displaced during the recession, and at night they slept in their car in our parking lot. It was the only place they felt safe. These families know that RAW is committed to them, that we're not going anywhere, and that we are here to help." Participants pay nothing for the programs, and Jenkins hopes that donors like the Bromers will continue generously supporting their work. "RAW affects change in children, but we're also changing the community," concluded Jenkins, "and our new print shop is encouraging these children to forge better, brighter futures." That's a big impression.
In the RAD Printshop, on ribbon-cutting day. From left to Right: Mary Flannery, founder of RAW Art Works, David Bromer, Anne Bromer, and Kit Jenkins, Executive Director. (Photo courtesy of Grace Whitlock)