CalArts program creates opportunity for kids

The vibe in the youth arts center next to the Watts Towers is busy and productive. The work in progress: an animated film of “Chac-Mool,” Carlos Fuentes’ spooky short story about a man enslaved by the stone statue of a Mayan god. Sketches of the film’s 26 scenes hang on a wall, and a dozen students are at work, drawing characters or painting backdrops.

Outside, on a balcony that faces north toward the 103rd Street Blue Line station, is a table spread with the fixings for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Stephen Curtiss, a 12-year-old from the neighborhood who comes to the arts center for three hours every Wednesday and Saturday with his older brother and younger sister, is ignoring the food. Today, he’s pushing to put some of the last touches on his backdrop for the final scene.

Since 1990, the California Institute of the Arts has been sending students and faculty to teach at this campus and to many others around the region. The CalArts Community Arts Partnership (known by its initials, CAP) now involves about 375 students and faculty from the campus in Valencia, far from the city’s core. They fan out to provide free classes for about 7,500 children, preteens through high school, at more than 30 schools and community centers from close-by Santa Clarita to farthest Wilmington.


It has been a low-profile enterprise, but CAP’s administrators now want attention. Part of that is the occasion of the program’s 20th anniversary, but there’s also an urgent recognition that these are bleak times for the public school funding that accounts for almost one-fifth of CAP’s annual budget of $1.6 million. CalArts officials think they’ll need to raise more money just to compensate for lost public funding and keep CAP running in place, and getting out the word about the program’s goals and accomplishments can’t hurt.

CalArts, a private arts college that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, hits up donors for about $1 million a year to support CAP. But CalArts President Steven Lavine is concerned that the Los Angeles Unified School District won’t be able to continue paying an additional $300,000 for CAP to provide arts classes for students at 20 “continuation” high schools — smaller schools-within-schools for teens in danger of dropping out. Saving those courses could take substantially stepped-up giving.

To celebrate, and court publicity, CalArts has tapped that major L.A. resource, star power. Twenty of CAP’s 46 classes are being visited this month by well-known artists recruited to teach master classes. Ed Harris worked with young actors at Plaza de la Raza on the Eastside, and rockers Airborne Toxic Event jammed with student musicians at the same venue. Jazz bassist Charlie Haden swung with a music class in Highland Park. Choreographer Carrie Ann Inaba, a judge on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” dropped by Plaza de la Raza to coach a modern dance class. Visual artists Mark Bradford, Edgar Arceneaux and Sam Durant, photographer Catherine Opie and filmmakers Brett Ratner (“X Men: The Last Stand”) and Henry Selick (“Coraline”) are involved. And the kids in Watts who are taking “Chac-Mool” from page to screen have received encouragement and pointers from Mark Osborne, director of " Kung Fu Panda.”

Most of these pros have studied or taught at CalArts, or were lined up with the help of Creative Artists Agency, which has become a CAP backer.

The essence of the program isn’t famous people dropping in, however, but the everyday interaction among CalArts students and teachers and kids from the neighborhoods. At the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center next to the Watts Towers, what one learns from watching and listening to sixth-grader Stephen at work, and from talking with some of the young adults who have helped him, is that CAP is about perspective — both in the visual sense and in its bigger meaning of coming to a broader understanding.

While he’s proud to be conjuring the backdrop of Scene 26 to fit his own ideas, Stephen says his teachers have helped him realize his vision. Their coaching shows in the road that runs past the doomed “Chac-Mool” protagonist’s pinkish home. The blacktop starts out wide at the bottom of the picture, and narrows as it recedes into the frame. The art term for that escapes the brightly smiling Stephen for the moment, but what he intended, and achieved, is perspective.

Helping the younger students is Erick Estrada, a 17-year-old senior at Jordan High School in Watts who has been coming here for CAP courses since he was 11. Estrada, who wears a hard-rocker’s long, bushy hair, loves animation and playing guitar, and he has studied both through CAP. He says the program has shaped his own perspective on life and what it might hold for him. Starting in September, he’ll enroll at CalArts as a freshman music major. He intends to be back regularly as a CAP instructor.

“I figured out what I wanted to do with my life because of this program, and because of this program I’ve done everything that I feel proud of,” Estrada says. “I’m completely grateful.”

The gratitude goes both ways. “You learn from these kids as well as teach. The way they come up with solutions is amazing,” says Pouya Afshar, who graduated from CalArts three years ago with a degree in animation, but continues to teach CAP courses. The slender, Iranian-born artist, who earned his master’s degree last year from UCLA, says his experiences in CAP helped him realize that he’s keener on teaching art than making films. “I’ve worked in the industry a little bit, but I like teaching a lot more.”

Lavine, the CalArts president, says he launched CAP soon after starting his job in 1988 because he felt it was important for young artists not to be garreted inside themselves, or sequestered by privilege. “I wanted our students to have experience of the real life of Los Angeles, in its depth and complexity. I wanted our students, when they were being formed as artists, to be confronted with the realities and facts of society.”

On the other side of that exchange, Lavine says, the children studying under CalArts students get tangible, relatable proof that college could be part of their future too.

It’s important to keep the classes free, because even a seemingly nominal charge could discourage some parents from enrolling their children, Lavine says. It’s not volunteer work: 90% of CAP’s budget is for salaries. Students who teach earn $15 to $20 an hour — sometimes leading the classes themselves, with backup from an advisor on the CalArts faculty, and sometimes assisting a faculty member who presides personally over a class. Faculty members earn stipends of $5,000 and up.

All the classes culminate in a public performance, publication or showing of the participants’ work — often at CalArts’ downtown REDCAT theater and gallery at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

A key goal now, Lavine says, is building CAP’s endowment from $3 million to a large enough stake to ensure that it will last — even if one of his successors decides that CalArts can’t afford to divert so much time and fundraising energy on exporting itself to L.A. neighborhoods.

“It’s a little discouraging,” Lavine acknowledges, that, as CAP celebrates its 20th anniversary, arts programs remain ready targets when public education budgets need paring. “The real lesson of CAP is how little it takes to create opportunity,” he says. “What 20 years of CAP has taught me is that with relatively little intervention, but smart intervention, you create hope.”