Arts on the Block [AOTB] offers opportunities to young people of diverse backgrounds to learn firsthand about the ways art, design and business intersect as they engage in real-world projects.
“These projects include decorating park benches, mosaics and large-scale murals in public and private spaces throughout the county,” said Anne L’Ecuyer, the nonprofit’s executive director. “As these young people develop artistic and collaborative skills and enjoy professional mentoring, they also benefit their communities.”
When AOTB, founded in 2003, moves into the first floor of the Silver Spring Library in downtown Silver Spring, it will be poised to further enrich the community. Currently it occupies a much-smaller space in a Fenton Street office building.
After Montgomery County offered a Request for Proposal for the library space, AOTB was selected and offered a long-term lease. In partnership with the architectural firm Hickok Cole, AOTB is designing its own new headquarters, which will feature an expanded mosaic studio, digital design lab, showcase gallery and pop-up art shop. The new space will double the studio size.
When L’Ecuyer joined the AOTB board in 2017, her priority was to find a new location. “We had a wonderful space in Kensington, but it was not accessible by public transit. We knew that if we could find a situation closer to that, we could serve many more young people,” she explained.
In any location, the organization offers several programs: One is Community Partnerships, in which youthful residents help transform their neighborhood under the direction of community leaders and AOB staff. Another, Excel Beyond the Bell, delivers after-school visual arts programs to middle school students, encouraging them to use art to take risks and develop creative outlets, while Explore-Create-Connect is an after-school collaborative program for incoming sixth-graders, who use visual art, dance, poetry and film to “answer essential questions through inquiry-based learning,” L’Ecuyer said.
Considered the flagship of the organization is the Pour Your ART Apprenticeship. High school students are selected to manage real-world projects for paying clients from government, the business world and private individuals. Through the process, the students learn about professionalism, entrepreneurship and other transferable skills along with art, said sculptor and installation artist Kristine Aono, who serves as a lead teaching artist for AOTB. Older youth are eligible to become studio crew members, and are paid minimum wage for halftime work.
Among the commissions AOTB has garnered are business logos, mosaics for the sidewalks near bus stops, and murals. One satisfied client is the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDT), said Corey Pitts, its Bus Rapid Transit Project Manager. “We were trying to figure out a way to decorate bus stops, and Anne suggested mosaics to bring a little flair,” he said. “They’re colorful and unique.”
MCDT considered engaging professional artists for the mosaics, but instead chose local kids — many of whom use public transportation and have a connection to it. “It was a no-brainer,” Pitts said. “It’s a feel-good story to use local high school students.”
“Working as an apprentice or studio crew member introduces young people to all possible careers and helps them make decisions about what to do with their lives,” said L’Ecuyer. Atiqa Khan 18, a two-time AOTB apprentice and Wheaton High School alumna, is majoring in business and architecture at Montgomery College. She was part of a team that designed medallions for certain stops along a Ride On bus line. Although Khan has always liked art and “knew it was in” her, she definitely noticed a change in her sense of design and color after her AOB experience, particularly crediting Aono.
But beyond art itself, Khan felt that attending meetings at the client’s site was helpful. One lesson of apprenticeship surprised her: she learned that you “have to compromise and be flexible. What you submit may be changed a thousand times.” Above all, Khan said, the confidence-building young participants gain through the programs is positive, regardless of what career path they eventually pursue.
“They learn color theory, composition and elements of art. But their path may not be design or art,” agreed Aono. “One apprentice wants to be an auto mechanic.”
Arts on the Block’s move promises to bring new life to the Silver Spring Library’s first floor. “People who walk by will see the mosaics,” L’Ecuyer said, adding that everyone connected with AOTB hopes that it, along with other organizations now or soon to be located in the library — like the Silver Spring campus of Levine Music – will make the library a magnet for young people.
Arts on the Block is currently located at 8510 Fenton St., Silver Spring. For information, call 240-645-0730 or visit https://artsontheblock.com.