A shallow silence falls atop the Pros Arts Studio workspace, as women and children sit beside one another busily creating papel picado and painting decorative clay bowls. A child, no older than six-years-old, sits amongst them, concentrated over his own clay bowl that sits in front of him. Paintbrush in hand, he carefully brushes the inside of the bowl, stroking the bright red paint back and forth – completely unaware of his surroundings. Confident and focused, he dips his paintbrush several more times into the colored paints, slowly creating a bold, striking pattern. As he finishes, he looks up and smiles at his mother sitting beside him, knowing that he’s just made something special, knowing that he’s just made art.
For 30 years, Pros Arts Studio, a pro-artists and pro-community non-profit organization, has witnessed moments like these. Its array of after school programs, in-school activities and community celebrations has fostered youth interests and talents, creating culturally aware, socially engaged and independently motivated artists.
“We have grandmothers that started here and took classes, as did their children and their grandchildren,” says executive director Giselle Mercier. “We’re very proud of that. We’re very community based, very grassroots, very neighborhood centered. That’s why we haven’t moved from here.”
Based in Pilsen’s Dvorak Park, Pros Arts Studio uses the neighborhood as its catalyst. Annually, they hold a Dia De Los Muertos procession down 18th Street, where members of the community and participating artists walk in celebration, honoring the dead. The youth-led and youth-produced We R Hip Hop festival also takes place in Pilsen, and invites members of the community to celebrate the art of hip-hop and graffiti.
It’s celebrations like these that emphasize Pros Arts Studio’s philosophy of fusing old-world traditions with modern ones. As Mercier states, on any given day, a class focused on traditional artwork, such as clay making or knitting could be held at the same time as an animation class whose focus is modernism.
“We honor tradition but we embrace innovation too,” says Mercier. “We are very conscious about being progressive. The board and I feel it’s important that 21st century skills are reinforced in the work we do with our youth.”
Most of the classes offered by Pros Arts Studio are project-based. Instructors teach a set of skills to the youth and they develop projects either in teams or individually, creating a finished piece to be evaluated and displayed at the end-of-semester showcase. This type of methodology, according to Mercier, teaches youth to not only depend on each other but also hold one another accountable.
“You’re bringing kids from all over the city who don’t know each other to collaborate together and spend six intense weeks together,” says youth program assistant Thelma Uranga. “You spend Monday through Friday with them and they work and think critically about the art that they’re creating and you just see this amazing relationship happening between them and yourself.”
The relationship between the artists, the students, the parents and the neighborhood itself creates a sense of family and community, says Mercier. “This is what keeps youth coming back and this is why we’ve been able to exist for more than thirty years. Art is essential and you can’t have community unless you have culture and the arts tied in. That necessity is part of our life.”
To celebrate and help continue their youth development initiatives, Pros Arts will host the annual Pozolada fundraiser this Saturday, March 19 from 6-10 p.m. at Casa Juan Diego, 2020 S. Blue Island.
Pros Arts Studio, Residency at Dvorak Park, 1119 W. Cullerton Chicago, Ill. 60608, 312-226-7767 www.prosarts.org