Snappy summer

Learning more than how to handle a camera at CEPA Gallery

DEREK GEE/Buffalo News
Jonathan Goodrum, 12, a pupil at Olmsted School 56, edits negatives on a light table during a photography class at CEPA Gallery. The students have access to a darkroom and a digital photography lab.

DEREK GEE/Buffalo News
Stephanie Lehsten, 15, a student at South Park High School, helps hang student work during a photography class at CEPA Gallery.

News Staff Reporter

While other kids have spent their summer vacations playing in the sun, Andrew Blake, 16, has been indoors, standing in the dark for hours with acrid chemical fumes wafting into his nostrils, while the chemicals stain his hands and clothes.

He's not being punished or held there against his will. In fact, like most photographers, Andrew loves spending time in the darkroom.

"Photography might be time-consuming, but it's worth it," the enthusiastic teen said. "It's worth it to put aside a few hours a week to smell like chemicals when you get the chance to capture a moment in time and preserve it."

Andrew, along with eight other students, is part of this year's Art Works! class, a comprehensive program designed for middle and high school students who want to learn photography. It's sponsored by the CEPA Gallery, a downtown not-for-profit arts center devoted to the photographic arts. Art Works! students will have their work on display at a CEPA exhibit starting Sept. 20.

The Art Works! program started three years ago in what CEPA Executive Director Lawrence Brose calls a "combined effort of an artists residency program and a protracted in-depth youth education component intertwined." Students ages 13 to 16 apply for the program in March and begin classes soon afterward, with the sessions extending through the summer.

The course is intense. Students shoot pictures, develop and print them in the darkroom, and learn graphic design and digital photography using Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress. The classes, held every week for several months, are on a par with an introductory college-level photography course.

"It's easy to go into a community and do a project in one shot and not give them an experience that can have an effect on them," said Brose. "We wanted to do something more comprehensive."

CEPA has geared Art Works! toward underprivileged kids who might not have much opportunity to explore the arts. The program is funded through grants and support from the Margaret L. Wendt and Mid-Atlantic Arts foundations, so Art Works! students don't have to worry about paying for expensive film or paper. CEPA lends them Nikon cameras to use.

Students apply for the class by writing an essay explaining why they want to learn more about photography. Because CEPA provides art classes in schools during the academic year as well, some students apply for Art Works! based on their previous experience in a CEPA class. Others simply express a desire to learn more about photography.

"I want to learn more because I like to have a record of things I see, especially living things," wrote Angela Hejna, 12, a pupil at Southside Elementary School. Once selected, the students meet for several hours a week in CEPA's basement, which houses a large darkroom and digital photo lab. The class is given assignments and must complete a final project. The 2002 class, taught by Jessica Kourkounis, who also works as art director for the Beast, a local alternative newspaper, is putting together collages of their images that are transferred to watercolor paper. They will also display individual prints.

Kourkounis has been teaching CEPA classes for three years. Standing barely taller than her students, the young, energetic photographer said she enjoys watching the kids' creativity come alive.

"A lot of their personalities come out," she said. "It brings out a totally different side to these kids and gets their minds off of things they don't want to be thinking about."

In addition, the kids benefit from the knowledge of working artists who come in to teach sessions and do small projects with them. Local artists Pat Bacon and Allison Stein visited this year's class.

"Pat Bacon came in with the kids and said, "This is how I work' and showed them an alternative approach to the medium," said Brose, the executive director. "(The artists) get to share their whole artistic process with them."

The students are required to keep a journal of their learning experience, writing observations and questions after each class. Though the classes are image-based, CEPA likes to make writing an integral part of photo arts education.

"We always try to incorporate writing in our projects," said Lauren Tent, education coordinator for CEPA. "Writing is such a problem in schools these days - kids hate it. But we like to emphasize it, even if it's just giving them a photo and saying, "Write about this.' "

CEPA runs arts programs in the Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy, Grover Cleveland High School and Schools 45, 54, 28 and 71. The programs are tailored around class curriculums and involve a variety of projects that go beyond photography.

"We like to give kids a new experience that helps supplement what they learn in school," said Tent. "They could have a career in the arts . . . but it also gives them computer skills, self-expression - it can be applied to so many areas."

The classes also help students fine-tune their analytical and problem-solving skills. For one Art Works! assignment, the teens were given an abstract word such as "stark" and told to shoot photos that represented that word. In another assignment, the students had to pick a prop, such as a pop can or stuffed animal, place it in different settings and shoot photos of it.

Andrew, who will be a junior in City Honors School this year, is atypical of Art Works! students. He has taken photography courses in school and was already armed with basic technical experience. Most students come in having never set foot in a darkroom.

"I never knew how to (print) before," said Cassandra Lopez, 13, who will be going into eighth grade at Riverside Institute of Technology this fall. "It got a little bit harder each class, but I eventually picked it up."

She has become so enamored with photography that she has asked her parents to look into high schools that offer photography classes.

They may have trouble finding one. Lean times have led to budget cuts in schools across the nation, and Buffalo is no exception. More often than not, arts programs have been the sacrificial lamb.

"The dumbest thing to be cutting in schools is art programs," said Brose, who is passionate about giving kids an artistic outlet in school. "They don't realize how much it affects kids. A city is only as good as its education."

Even CEPA has felt the blow to the artistic purse. While previous Art Works! classes have run eight months, this year's class was scaled back to five months because of insufficient funding.

Though Brose said the curriculum remained the same, Kourkounis saw the effects of losing the extra time.

"The last three months are important because they develop their own style and feel more freedom and more confidence," she said.

Still, parents and teachers often see a profound change in children who have studied with CEPA, even if it is for a short time. Margie Brockman, a resource teacher in the gifted-and-talented program at School 71, has witnessed the transformation in students once they have taken a CEPA class.

"They begin to identify themselves as somebody," she said. "I can see it in their walk, their talk. . . . They're just more confident."

To encourage Art Works! students to continue their pursuit of the arts, CEPA offers them free use of the darkroom even after classes have ended.

"We try to keep them active in the gallery, coming back and learning," said Kourkounis. "Our real goal is we want them to come back and mentor the next class of students."

Brose, who said CEPA has made an effort to stay downtown and accessible to students, hopes the gallery becomes a second home for inner-city kids, one where they can pursue the artistic process and express themselves through their art.

Central to improving students' independence and self-esteem is the gallery exhibit that completes the Art Works! program.

"When they see their work hanging in the gallery, they're really excited and proud of what they've done," said Tent.

CEPA Gallery, at 617 Main St. in the Market Arcade, will hold an opening reception for the 2002 Artworks! Exhibit on Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to midnight.

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