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In the front room of Computers4Kids, teenagers sit at ultra-modern Mac computers, exploring coding and learning to use SketchUp 3D modeling software. In the next part of the building, called the Clubhouse, students work on music production and create mixed-media portraits using both computers and traditional art materials.
The buzz of activity is part of the organization’s summer STEAM camps, short for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Since opening the Clubhouse last year, C4K has built up an array of state-of-the-art equipment and introduced a growing number of arts-related programs.
“We’ve always thought of technology as computers. Recently, we’ve expanded the way we think about technology and added the ‘A,’ the arts,” said Kala Somerville, executive director. “It’s not that it’s necessarily woven into everything we do, but it’s certainly another experience and opportunity we offer our members. This is the first time we’ve done an art-focused camp.”
The most recent of the five-day camps, which wrapped up Friday, was inspired by the work of Kehinde Wiley, an African-American artist who paints portraits of brown-skinned people in powerful poses in front of elaborate backgrounds.
C4K used Wiley’s art as a starting point for a discussion about personal identity and ways of representing oneself.
“We’re dealing with teenagers and the whole concept of identity. We live in a world where people are always photographing themselves, and it’s often selfies and it’s very informal,” said Somerville. “The pieces of work that they’re creating, it’s not just a selfie, this is something that’s going to be hung on canvas.”
C4K tasked the campers with designing and creating large portrait backdrops that they felt in some way represented themselves. On Friday afternoon, a local photographer took portraits of each camper in front of their background.
The planning process included a trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond, which currently has a retrospective gallery of Wiley’s works. Matt Burke, Clubhouse coordinator, challenged campers to analyze the meaning of symbols in paintings they saw, and determine what symbols might relate to their own identities.
“In this project, we have someone who did paint splatters on a red background, then 3D-printed a crown and spray-painted it gold and glued jewels to it,” Burke said. “He’s using a design, the 3D printer, physically gluing things, then taking a digital photograph with this virtual crown that’s now a [real] thing, and then will reprint it onto a physical canvas.”
Burke views this integration of the virtual and the physical, the technical and the artistic as a valuable experience for teenagers who have grown up in a world pervaded with technology.
Another weeklong C4K camp earlier in the summer revolved around the same concept but with music instead of visual art.
“The Charlottesville Youth Orchestra brought a group of orchestra players into the Clubhouse and we had a week of making music,” said Burke. “A lot of our kids learned music through digital media production, and this group of kids learned it through classical training, and we smashed them together and created an epic song.”
Burke also praised that camp for bringing together local students who might not otherwise ever interact. C4K is exclusively for low-income families, and the programs are all free.
During the school year, the organization primarily runs a mentoring program, in which low-income students meet with a mentor once a week to work on a project and are given a free computer refurbished by an experienced volunteer. They also offer open studio time for students to come in and use computers, which has expanded to include the full Clubhouse facility.
The C4K Clubhouse is part of the Clubhouse Network, an organization started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and composed of extracurricular learning centers around the world. Though the Clubhouse has been open for over a year, an official welcome celebration will take place Sept. 9 and include the president of the global organization, as well as a showing of self-portraits and other works from the summer camp.
Burke said the resources in the Clubhouse and the service of the organization’s many volunteer mentors have allowed local students to undertake almost any project they can imagine. The Clubhouse includes vinyl cutters, high-quality art supplies, a green screen and video editing room, a recording studio with both modern and vintage gear, Arduino micro-computers and a variety of circuitry materials.
“Being able to have an idea and just pull up one of these different tools, you can be as open as you want,” Burke said. “Kids ask me crazy stuff: ‘I want to build a life-sized car out of cardboard.’ And I go, ‘yes!’ Ninety-nine percent of the time, no matter how outlandish the idea, the answer is almost always, ‘Yes we can.’”
Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress
Johnny Jackson, 10, paints a design on his hat during a S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and math) focused camp at Computers4Kids