While Los Angeles smoldered and burned-out lots stood suddenly fallow after the 1992 riots, Sheila Scott-Wilkinson got the chance to bring a long-held vision of hers to life.
The California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts called on the film and television actress to begin working some kind of healing magic for the scarred city.
With a $60,000 grant, Wilkinson immediately began formulating on paper what had been in her head for years: a grass-roots series of arts workshops for youths that would employ as many local artists in as many parts of the inner city as possible.
Today, hundreds of teen-agers around the city are not only sharing Wilkinson's vision but are shaping it into their own through song, dance, theater and a host of other art forms.
"For a long time, I had been seeing a tremendous need for high-quality arts programs in places like South-Central. Not enough artists even think about working there," said Wilkinson, her rapid words punctuated by an energy that rarely allows her to sit still. "They (the state and federal arts agencies) didn't really know what I was going to do," She laughed. "But I did."
An acting teacher who also operates Art Reach, an arts workshop for prisons and correctional youth facilities, Wilkinson had experience coordinating arts programs, though not on so grand a scale. She drove constantly throughout the city checking out potential sites and single-handedly assembled a summer Artists-in-Residence program. She placed artists for up to six weeks of workshops from Compton to Pico-Union that offered young people ages 12 to 18 free training in theater, dance, visual arts, comedy, music, video production and creative writing.
The best part of the job, said Wilkinson, was turning places that don't usually house art happenings--churches, libraries and community centers--into meeting points for artists and the public.
"We kind of set up shop where the space was available or centrally located," said Wilkinson, herself an artist-in-residence at the William Grant Still center in the Crenshaw district. "And I talked a lot to artists and community people to see what program was needed or wanted most."
For Edward Grice, associate pastor at True Growth Inspiration Missionary Baptist Church in South-Central, the twice-weekly music and drumming workshops did more than intended. From the core of more than 20 arts students, Grice formed a teen round-table discussion group that meets once a week.
"We've had a lot of shootings recently at Washington High School, and the teens wanted to address that on a regular basis," Grice said. "This was a great opportunity to do that. . . . Parents say part of the violence problem is that the kids have nothing to do, particularly in the summer. This (the arts program) satisfies everyone's needs."
Now in its third year, the program has expanded to 45 artists and includes Venice's Oakwood district--on the same $60,000 shoestring budget. Despite that, Wilkinson has a strict policy of paying artists relatively high hourly wages to ensure she gets quality instructors.
"Artists get so preoccupied with the Hollywood scene, the established gallery scene, certain areas are neglected," said Wilkinson, whose stage and film credits include best-actress honors in a 1978 Jamaican film, Dramalogue critic awards for two local plays, and performances in London's National Theater.
"I wanted this program to not only fulfill kids, but make the artists more complete by bringing them into the community and forcing them to deal directly with cultures other than their own."
While the program's teaching staff reflects the ethnic makeup of Central Los Angeles--half are black, half are Latino and a few are Anglo--all deal with students of other colors and cultures.
Master drummer Ernesto Salcedo teaches a universal language of rhythm during workshops, when attentive students perfectly mimic his beats on a variety of African, pre-Columbian, Native American and Latin American instruments.
"The drums tell myths and stories of cultures these kids have never been exposed to," said the East Los Angeles native of his African-American students.
"What's interesting is that I'm introducing them to an African heritage, their own heritage, that they don't really know."
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