Young Makers Express Themselves

Carolyn Holmes 

Two Rivers Gallery is a mid-sized public art gallery in Prince George, British Columbia, a city of 80,000 and the traditional home of the Lheidli T’enneh and Carrier Sekani First Nations people. Represented by the local tourism bureau as “a thriving city within mere minutes of beautiful, pristine forests,” Prince George is nine hours from the major centres of Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. As a result of our relative remoteness, Two Rivers Gallery is responsive to the local community. Our programming space is equal in size to our exhibition space and the Gallery offers a full range of studio programs for all ages, camps, family programs and community events .”

MakerLab Youth Immersion

In the fall of 2013, Two Rivers Gallery launched MakerLab 2RG, a multi-disciplinary, creative community space. A year later the program was awarded the British Columbia Museums Association (BCMA) Award of Merit and was cited in a BCMA keynote address by museologist Tim Willis as an example of innovation in British Columbia museums. While the program developed a strong group of young Makers between the ages of nine and thirteen, as well as a keen group of adult Makers (computer techies, woodturners, silver smiths, crafters, etc.), only recently, through MakerLab Youth Immersion, have we been able to engage youth, including at-risk youth and Indigenous youth and stimulate the young Maker community in Prince George.

MakerLab Youth Immersion (MYI) is a ten-month long after-school program aimed at attracting an under-reached and underserved audience. Two Rivers Gallery recruits and mentors a group of twelve youth each year, with a goal of at least 50% of the youth self-identifying as Indigenous. These Youth Makers learn new skills and experiment through self-directed exploration with guidance from the Mentors. Throughout the program they are encouraged to share their new skills with peers and invite others in their demographic to Open Make Nights, building this youth Maker community.

Over the first seven months of the program, the youth are introduced to time tested approaches to making and new technologies through multi-week modules, each taught by a local artist, Elder or Maker who acts as a Mentor to all the youth throughout the length of the project. This year, the Mentors include Wet’suwet’en artists and educators Jennifer Annais-Pighin and Peter George, Métis wood carver Lenard Paquette, wood turners Ken Turner and Ron Clemmons, Tahltan artists Louise and Cindy Framst, 3D printing expert Darren Ditto, artist and laser cutting/engraving expert Kathleen Angelski, and artist Cat Sivertsen. All of the Mentors are paid CARFAC rates for their teaching time, but also volunteer countless hours of their own time working with the youth on their projects. The youth complete modules in Northwest Coast design, traditional First Nations carving, wood turning, drum making and new technologies including silver clay, 3D printing and laser cutting and engraving.

Youth participants actively learn to use specialized equipment and practice their skills alongside their Mentors. Unlike in the formal education system, professional practitioners and artists work with small groups of six to twelve students, ensuring that individuals get the attention which will help them thrive.  The program provides opportunities for intergenerational learning, with youth learning from Elders and Mentors, as well as Elders and Mentors learning from the youth. Last year a first year university engineering student who was participating in the program emailed back and forth for weeks with Mentor Ken Turner, trying to figure out how to keep her purple wood purple once it was exposed to the air and they would meet outside program hours to shop for supplies. A 19-year-old young man currently in the program often spends afternoons carving with Mentor Lenard Paquette who is more than three times his age. As a result of their time spent together, friendships develop between the youth and the Mentors.

In addition to the formal modules, the youth spend three to five months of independent learning in the area that interests them the most. The youth continue to work, producing their own artwork over this period with the intent of creating work that is exhibited in the fall in the Gallery’s Rustad Galleria, alongside work their Mentors have made. They receive validation as practicing artists through this exhibition and receive a small artist fee for exhibiting their work. During the opening reception last September the young Makers lit up with pride as they received their graduation certificates, posed for photos and shared their creations with friends, family and Gallery visitors.

MakerLab Youth Immersion is a stimulus program where we plant seeds of possibility and provide the tools through which the youth can express themselves. The groups are diverse. Some teens in the program thrive at school and have joined MakerLab Youth Immersion for an opportunity to learn new skills while others struggle to find high school classes relevant and enjoyable. All of these young people are figuring out who they are, what they want to do and are navigating complex school and social systems. These challenges are multiplied in the lives of vulnerable youth. Some of the youth in our program are finding their place in alternative education programs while a number are transitioning out of the foster care system and others are dealing with complicated family dynamics. While MakerLab Youth Immersion cannot hope to solve their problems, the youth see Two Rivers Gallery as a safe place to hang out and express themselves.

Youth Outcomes
Through MakerLab Youth Immersion, Two Rivers Gallery is reaching out to youth in our community and actively engaging them in the creative process. We are witnessing the youth becoming more self-confident and willing to carry through with projects from initial conception to the final end result, regardless of challenges and roadblocks placed in their way. Reports from parents and youth after the first year of the program suggest that there is transference of these life skills from the MakerLab Youth Immersion program to school and home life.

One of our program participants was struggling with his studies and did not know what he would do after school. Not only did the young man pass his classes with high marks but through MakerLab Youth Immersion he has found his passion lies in carving wood. Although his program was completed six months ago, he continues to come to MakerLab each week and we are helping him develop his portfolio for his application to attend the Frieda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art. This young man is a role model for the students in the current year of the program and his mother attributes his participation in MakerLab Youth Immersion for his new found direction.

It is impossible to predict the effect MakerLab Youth Immersion will have on the youth over the course of their lives. One young man, who was living in a group home, started to stay after the youth program had ended and join in the Open Make nights which occur on the same evening. Sometimes he plays the guitar; sometimes he joins in with the others to make. The important thing is that he now has a place where he feels at home. Word is getting out that this is a place for young people.

Other groups, from Aboriginal care groups to high school basketball teams have dropped by MakerLab to create.  One young woman going through a difficult transition from a mainstream high school to an alternative education stream found that MakerLab Youth Immersion provided her with the stability she needed at that time. Two youth in the program, both in government care, discovered they are brothers and navigated this new relationship while working on their projects. These are not outcomes we could have ever predicted, but are examples of how, when we create opportunities, we open ourselves up to endless possibilities.

Impact on Two Rivers Gallery
The impact of this program on the Gallery has also been rewarding. Staff and Mentors have been enriched by the interactions with youth participating in MakerLab Youth Immersion. New visitors have come to the Gallery as a result of the program, and our reach into the community has expanded as we extend our vision for the program to local community groups, such as the Native Friendship Center, Carrier Sekani Family Services and the Aboriginal Education Department of School District 57. MakerLab Youth Immersion advances a vision of what museums and galleries can be: places of influence, inspiration and growth through a broadened definition of creativity. Rather than concentrating on creativity through the mainstream approach to art making, MakerLab Youth Immersion utilizes technologies and knowledge-holders from outside of the conventional western fine-art realm, allowing us to reach audiences and communities in need of connection, engagement and empowerment in what they are and can become. In addition, visitors to the Gallery witnessing the program in action and the exhibition at the culmination of the program are also influenced by what happens as a result of MakerLab Youth Immersion, expanding the reach of the program beyond the Gallery itself.

MYI Supporters
Support for the pilot project of MakerLab Youth Immersion came from the BC Arts Council, the Province of British Columbia and the Prince George Community Foundation. The BC Arts Council has come on board with financial support for another two years and the Vancouver Foundation for three years. Local support continues through the Community Foundation and our partners at Integris Credit Union.

This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, May/June issue, 2017.