In D.C., Art Program Turns Boys' Lives Into 'Masterpieces' In Washington's Ward 7, where only 33 percent of students graduate from high school, a program called Life Pieces to Masterpieces is sending nearly 100 percent of its graduates to college or post-secondary education.

In D.C., Art Program Turns Boys' Lives Into 'Masterpieces'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This week, we've been exploring the intersection of education and the arts. Now, the story of an afterschool program in a struggling Washington, D.C. neighborhood. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, it uses art to teach African-American boys and young men to be more introspective.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: At Life Pieces to Masterpieces it's not really about the arts. It's about the process of learning to express yourself and it's a very collaborative process. Boys and young men conceive ideas for their paintings together and those paintings often reflect what's going on in their lives. Twenty-six-year-old Maurice Kie, a gentle giant at 6'4, is a mentor with Life Pieces.

He started with the program as an apprentice, and they're called, when he was 9 years old.

MAURICE KIE: It's the whole thought that you went through something in your life and I support you. Or you went through something in your life and I also been through some of the same situations. So we kind of embrace the same idea, and we kind of embrace the same actual canvas, paint and paint brush.

BLAIR: Take a series the boys did called "Walk A Mile In My Shoes." Each painting is different but they all have a pair of tennis shoes as the centerpiece. One painting is black with brightly colored flecks, like stars. The tennis shoes sort of emerge from the center.

KIE: Oftentimes, we have shoes hanging from power lines. They represent different things in the community. It could be the death, mostly the death of someone. It could be drug territory, prostitution. For us, it was more like, could you walk a mile in my shoes and could you embrace me as I experience these things?

BLAIR: So the arts is the means, but not the end. Kie often talks about the brotherhood that forms at Life Pieces between boys who learn to talk about these experiences with each other. They also write songs and poems together.

KIE: If I do well in school, can I jump over jail? If I pray every night, can I jump over this hill? If I run past time, will time really tell or will these shoes turn to boots as I write this next poem from a cell?

BLAIR: Life Pieces to Masterpieces is in Ward 7, a D.C. neighborhood where the statistics are bleak. According to the Urban Institute, nearly a quarter of the young people in juvenile detention in D.C. come from Ward 7. About 40 percent of children live in poverty. Most of them are being raised by single mothers. Mary Brown co-founded Life Pieces.

MARY BROWN: The little boys and young men have been exposed to all types of horrific things that's unspeakable. And being the natural little boys and young men that they are, they just kind of swallow it all.

BLAIR: So, Brown and the mentors and an in-house counselor try to create an environment where expressing yourself is encouraged.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So raise your hand if you have something that you dream to do, a goal.

BLAIR: The art-making process at Life Pieces begins with a brainstorming session.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) you have a goal? What's your goal?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: A professional basketball player.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Okay. Antwon(ph).

ANTWON: A football player.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I didn't hear you.

ANTWON: A NFL football player.

BLAIR: A group of 11 and 12-year-olds are working on a project about goals.

KIE: Eighty percent of the young men, I want to be a basketball player first. I want to be a football player second and then I want to be a scientist and then I want to be an agent. That's kind of how the community is. Myself, I just knew I was going to be a four-sport athlete.

BLAIR: And Maurice Kie says that's OK because learning to talk openly about your goals is a new concept for many of these children. After more brainstorming and refining, the boys sketch out what their paintings might look like.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a sketch (unintelligible) and then you have to add this piece. And then you have to add (unintelligible).

BLAIR: The style of art is distinct, and fairly simple to create. From scraps of canvas, the boys cut out shapes that will form whatever designs they've come up with. Those pieces are painted and then sewn on to larger canvases. Life Pieces has its own color wheel, with each color representing a positive value. For example, navy blue represents giving. Brown is discipline. Green is meditation. Maurice Kie says meditation is one of the things they teach.

KIE: Our meditation process, it starts off with simply being quiet. I think a lot of times, growing up in the city, everything is loud, everything is moving, everything is go, go, go, but no one actually just sits down to be quiet. And I think that's the first step, getting our guys to understand that it's a time to rejuvenate yourself.

BLAIR: Eleven-year-old Robert Taylor is an apprentice at Life Pieces. He recently did a painting that was part of Meditation Month.

ROBERT TAYLOR: We had to meditate, so I made me sitting on clouds with candles around me, meditating.

BLAIR: Taylor's painting is both vibrant and tranquil. He used bright red, brown, yellow and white. The background is a breezy turquoise. Taylor has two brothers who are also in the program. Their father, Robert Taylor Sr., says Life Pieces is no ordinary afterschool program.

ROBERT TAYLOR SR.: Life Pieces is doing something I've never seen before. It's like they take a personal interest in your child, and we have young men teaching younger men how to be men. And I love it.

BLAIR: Life Pieces to Masterpieces feels like a family. Since it was founded in 1996, there have been heartbreaks. Two apprentices were killed, and two were sent to prison. But of the estimated 1,000 men who've completed the program, nearly 100 percent have graduated high school and gone on to college or vocational school. Mary Brown considers every one of them an artist.

BROWN: The paintings are not the masterpieces. It's our boys' lives that really, in fact, are the masterpieces.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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