WHAT'S WORKING: Art program transforms neighborhoods and young people

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - One Cincinnati organization is painting the city with a positive brush.

"Artworks" hires young people to paint murals all over the Tri-State. The finished product has even won a national award for Cincinnati's top man. Fox19's Kimberly Holmes Wiggins introduces us to some teenagers who say art is "what's working" for them.

Nearly two dozen young people sit high in the air on scaffolding. They're painting a mural. The young adults are turning the wall of the CET building off West Central Parkway into a canvas.

"You don't really notice the heat," said Isaiah Lemons, 17. "They keep us well hydrated with Gatorade and other snacks and goodies."

The young artists are turning the city into their gallery.

"Me, myself, I've helped with seven murals in the past," said Erika Branch, 19. "Four outdoor and three indoor installations."

They're working for MuralsWorks, a program run by organizers of Artworks. The non-profit is dedicated to hiring teens to create art that'll transform neighborhoods and young lives.

"As you drive down you can see on each side of the street, a lot of murals," said Mackenzie Houston, 18. "I would see it as a little girl, and I'm like, wow, I want to do that. It looks really cool, and now I'm here!"

On Wednesday afternoon, in the blazing summer heat, Houston and her colleagues work on "the Singing Mural." It's one of 15 that'll be created this summer. Renowned artist C.F. Payne created the design. It's full of faces; including: a police officer, an opera singer and even Mr. Red. The characters are shown all singing and celebrating the arts in Cincinnati.

Prints of the piece will be available for purchase after July; either signed or unsigned. Proceeds will go to support project. A special cause considering the Singing Mural will be the largest to date for Artworks. It's 3,400 square feet, and the first one created in the West End neighborhood.

"We've employed 19 artists, including 15 teenagers to work on this project," said Colleen Houston, Director of Programs for Artworks. "It's their summer job so they're hard at work. It should be complete by mid-August."

In total, more than 2,200 hundred teenagers have worked for the program. This summer, 142 teen apprentices and 36 professional artists signed on to be a part of the project.

There are 34 murals in more than two dozen communities around the Tri-State.

This summer murals will be painted in several neighborhoods, such as Avondale, College Hill, Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, the Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Over-the-Rhine, Pleasant Ridge, the West End, and at the Banks. They're all placed in highly visible areas. According to the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments Traffic Count, cars pass ArtWorks murals more than 156 million times a year.

"All of our projects are done in partnership with community groups, education groups, city council, or cultural institutions," said Colleen. "So it's pretty tremendous to have such a huge impact, and we really rely on our partnerships to be able to do that. "

The artists say they're all lucky to be a part of the project; 328 young people applied. Only 142 were hired.

Branch graduated from the School for Creative and Performing Arts this summer. She's worked for Artworks for three years, and hopes to use the experience to help her become an art teacher. She's also hoping to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Design this fall.

"I really really appreciate what {Artworks} does for me, because I mean, when it comes to college portfolio and things like that, they really like to see that you're helping out your community and that you're doing what you're going to school for," said Branch.

Organizers said they also enjoy playing a pivotal role in the teenagers' lives.

Colleen Houston said they often write letters of recommendation for college and scholarships. She also said that the teenagers often come back and work for them as teaching artists.

For young people like Lemons, the project is a God-send; saving him for a boring summer. What would he be doing for next few months if he wasn't involved with the program?

"Just chilling," Lemons said. "Just doing nothing."

It took the SCPA senior five years to build the courage to apply.

"I enjoy meeting new people, " said Lemons. "The artists are, like, awesome at what they do. And just getting taught by awesome artistic directors."

And other young participants like Houston agree.

"Even the first day. I don't think anyone knew each other, but right after, we all just started clicking because we're all artists from all different areas and we all decided it's time to mesh," said Houston, a recent graduate who will attend the University of Cincinnati this fall.

And why do organizers believe the program is working?

"I think it's employing teens, employing artists, working in partnership with communities, and creating works with public value that really everyone can connect with," said Colleen Houston. "I think that there's just so many layers of value. For this program to exist in Cincinnati, it's pretty tremendous."

Mayor Mark Mallory conceived of the ArtWorks Mural Program which has been underway since 2007. Mayor Mallory was awarded first place honor in the 2010 City Livability Awards Program during The U.S. Conference of Mayors' 78th Annual Meeting selected by former mayors from a pool of over 200 applicants.

ArtWorks' partners include Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati Art Museum, Taft Museum of Art, and Duke Energy Convention Center.

Summer Project schedules vary in length, and range from four to nine weeks (June 13 - August 12). The work schedule is Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.

For more information on how to put your community on the map-- turning an old wall into a canvas for the Artworks program-- or how to help make sure more teens can experience the program, log on to: Http://www.artworkscincinnati.org/

If you have a story of a person or program that's working in your neighborhood, email: KHolmes@fox19.com