The Art of Fitting In

A local nonprofit offers teenagers a creative outlet—and a sense of belonging



Instructor Carien Quiroga (left) and executive director Jan Goldstein work with kids on a mural at Arts on the Block’s Wheaton headquarters. Photo by Michael Ventura

Every Wednesday and Saturday, Yodit Kirubel makes her way along a busy strip of Georgia Avenue in Wheaton to an ordinary-looking office building. There, she enters a world swirling with color, music and energy.

This is the unlikely headquarters of Arts on the Block, where for the last 10 years the nonprofit has been training Montgomery County high school students how to make art. And in the process, helping them to grow up.

“I feel I learn a lot here, and it’s not just the art stuff, there are a lot of self-empowerment things, too,” says Yodit, a 17-year-old senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. “It’s nice to be around people who enjoy the same things you do, so coming back every day is something I look forward to. Art is an important part of my life and this is somewhere you know you belong.”

High school is a hard time for most kids, as they figure out who they are and where they fit. They all need a place to belong. And that’s particularly true for children of immigrants like Yodit, whose parents are from Ethiopia. These kids can easily get lost in big public high schools, and for them, “art becomes this coping mechanism, a survival sort of thing,” says Carien Quiroga, 46, the main instructor at Arts on the Block.

The program offers different outlets for young artists, but its core effort takes 35 to 40 high school students a year—many from underprivileged backgrounds—through 20-week sessions of intensive instruction. By the end, they’re producing large artworks that are displayed throughout the county, and getting a stipend of $300 to $900 or public service credit.

“We look for kids who are creative but haven’t had the chance to develop their skills,” says Jan Goldstein, 57, the program’s executive director. “Their parents don’t have money for art classes. A majority have never set foot in an art museum. These are kids who don’t necessarily shine in school. They’re quiet; their work isn’t appreciated like the jocks. They come here and they get to work on public art and their skills are there for the world to see.”

That art now decorates the county with rich splashes of creativity—from benches in Silver Spring and offices in Rockville to a bus stop in Derwood and a wall at the Little Falls Library in Bethesda. These young artists might be working in an office building in Wheaton, but their designs reflect their roots in China and Ghana, El Salvador and Honduras.

“These kids are from all over the world,” says Quiroga, who was born in South Africa. “I can relate to them because I’m an immigrant and so are they. Sometimes they were born here, but their parents are embarrassing [to them] because they have accents, they’re not American enough. We talk about keeping your own culture, celebrating your culture, but also learning American culture. It’s about living in those two worlds.”

Quiroga knows that tension well. Her own work as a sculptor draws heavily on South African themes, and when she emigrated eight years ago to follow her husband, she “felt like a traitor” to her country. She even carried bottles of soil from home that she still mixes with paint for inspiration. “No kidding,” she laughs, “I declared it at Customs. I said, ‘I have sand, I’m sorry, I’m a crazy artist. ’ ”

Goldstein also felt “a tremendous passion” for art growing up in Detroit, but says she didn’t have the talent or drive to make it a career and studied landscape architecture instead. While working for the Arlington County parks department in the late ’90s, she was sent to Chicago to study Gallery 37, a pioneering program that promotes the arts in city high schools. The work she saw—exploding from the sides of buses and the walls of airports—changed her life.  

“I was smitten,” she recalls. “I said, ‘This is where I want to be. ’ ”

It took Goldstein several years to attract backers for a program modeled on Gallery 37. The Collaboration Council, a nonprofit that coordinates services for the county’s children, donated the first seed money. And today, Arts on the Block has a $300,000 annual budget, including its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

On the day I visit, the current crop of “apprentices” are discussing their latest project—90 centerpieces fashioned from glass bottles and glow sticks that adorned the tables at a major fundraising dinner a few nights before. Several of the young artists attended the event and are chattering happily about the fancy food and warm attention they enjoyed.

“I felt like I was part of the community,” one young woman says. Another adds: “It made me feel important.”

The whole point of Arts on the Block is to build confidence, not just competence. “There’s such a sense of ownership if you can say, ‘I made that little piece, it belongs to me,’ ” Quiroga says.

Audrey Tseng Fischer—daughter of a Taiwanese mother and German-Canadian father—breaks into a bright smile as she tells me what the program has meant to her: “I get to be around other kids who can influence my own art and teach me new things I didn’t know about. They expand your box a little bit.”

A 17-year-old senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Audrey shows me a recent piece, a mosaic featuring blue and green tiles with a few stones and sticks tossed in. She recalls the day she made it. “I was running around outside, looking for pieces to put in. I grabbed some rocks, I grabbed some sticks, I kind of felt crazy. I have this idea and I have to get it done.”

Later she presented her design concept to the other apprentices. “Everyone was like: ‘It’s so cool, but you could do this, too.’ And they had really cool ideas. I feel really open about asking people to critique my work.”

Now she’s working on a panel of five mosaics, part of a college application for a program in architecture. “When it’s my birthday,” she says, laughing, “my best friend gives me rocks and sticks because that’s all I want.”

To buy a piece of art made by these students, or to commission a work for your home, office or neighborhood, contact Jan Goldstein at jgoldstein@artsontheblock.com.

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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