Local students exhibit their work at Pink Dog Creative

ALL FOR ONE: Youth Arts Empowerment students and teacher, Cleaster Cotton, pose with some of their works in progress. Pictured, from left, are Brenda Estrada, Gloria Estrada, Cotton, Trinity Harper, Evie Thomas and Jubilee Morrell. Photo by Thomas Calder

Paintbrushes, paper plates, tubes of acrylic paint and miniature wooden mannequins line the tables of an upstairs classroom at the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center. Not far from the supplies, local artist Cleaster Cotton stands, greeting her Youth Arts Empowerment students as they enter the space.

There are five participants, ages 11-17, enrolled in the organization’s latest six-week course. The free program, which Cotton first launched in fall 2018, is co-sponsored by the Edington Center and Pink Dog Creative. Its mission, the artist explains, is to help students from Asheville’s marginalized communities find self-empowerment through self-expression.

“It’s a really powerful thing when you make art and art supplies available for children … who are challenged with some of the things that youth in the Southside community and marginalized communities are challenged with,” says Cotton. “They need a means to create, to express themselves and to be lifted up and honored for what they’re doing.”

On Friday, March 1, the students will celebrate their artistic visions and achievements with a group exhibit at the Pink Dog Creative Gallery. The show, titled On the Cusp, runs through Sunday, March 31, and will also feature pieces from YAE’s inaugural fall 2018 class.

Throughout the weeks leading up to the community event, the students have worked not only on individual paintings but also on public speaking. At the group’s recent Friday night session, Jubilee Morrell, 11, stood before the class displaying her current work-in-progress. “This is me and my mom dancing at a wedding,” she explained.

“That is fabulous,” Cotton exclaimed. “When I look at that painting, because of the brush strokes, it makes me feel the movement. And I love the color palette that you chose. Great job.”

After all members presented, the class gathered around the supply station, picking out what they needed. Meanwhile, Cotton returned to the front of the room, where she went through some of the finished pieces that will be included in the exhibit. From mixed-media to oil pastels, On the Cusp will showcase the group’s wide range of talents and techniques.

The opening will also introduce the students to the financial side of the art world. All works, notes Cotton, will be available for purchase. “I want to bridge the gap and let students know … that they can actually be artists,” she says. “I want them to see that they can make a living and can share their experiences with others through their art form.”

For four of the group’s five members, this is the ultimate goal. (Aspiring artist Evie Thomas, 11, notes she might also consider becoming a lawyer. “They make very good money,” she explains.) No matter where their futures may take them, all members of YAE share a collective sense of pride and delight in having their work shown at Pink Dog Creative.

“This is my first show,” says Trinity Harper, 11. “It feels good.”

Gloria Estrada, 17, echoes her classmate’s sentiment. “I am happy because I always want to paint and show my art,” she says. “This is all I want.”

For Hedy Fischer, co-owner of Pink Dog Creative, On the Cusp is part of the gallery’s ongoing effort to bridge the gap between the River Arts District and its neighboring Southside community. “I want to make Asheville a better place,” she says. “And I don’t want to do it as a politician. I’d much rather do it as an individual community member. So I use the resources that I have available to me, and one of those resources happens to be Pink Dog.”

Cotton, who has worked with Fischer on a number of community projects, agrees that the show is a step toward a more inclusive Asheville. However, she notes, showing up is only part of the equation. “I want people to realize that you begin to support artists from the grassroots level up,” she says.

Investing in these young artists, she continues, is critical for creating a more equitable future. “Equity needs to happen when it comes to self-expression, when it comes to being respected and when it comes to economic empowerment,” she says. “That piece cannot be left out.”

For now, with supplies in hand, the five young artists continue working toward the show’s opening night. At the front of the class, Thomas applies a layer of blue paint to her canvas. Her hope, she says, midbrushstroke, is that people leave the exhibit inspired to find their own artistic voice.

Harper agrees. “I like to create stuff that will inspire people to do more things and to get out,” she says. “I want people to love, care and help other people — and to not be so frustrated.”

WHAT: On the Cusp
WHERE: Pink Dog Creative Gallery, 348 Depot St. avl.mx/5p4
WHEN: Opening reception Friday, March 1, 5-8 p.m. Exhibit on view through Sunday, March 31. Free

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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