Before Solo cups became the stuff of beer pong and mystery punch in the realm of teenage iconography, they were the conduits of makeshift fence signage. Messages like "CONGRATS CLASS OF '18" and "GO FALCONS" are spelled out by plastic circles in front of schools all over America. On a small fence mounted to a wall at the Locust Art Builders' cumulative exhibition, "Just Another Day," light-blue spheres spell out the message "sorry."
"It’s what happens when kids hang out near a fence for a long time... Eventually, a little, tiny memorial is made," says Monica Lopez De Victoria, the lead artist mentor at Locust Projects' annual summer art intensive for Miami-Dade County teens. "Their world is a lot smaller even though they’re connected to this bigger-picture thing that’s happening. Their knowing in their heart is tinier and more raw and real."
Small but significant transformations characterize many of the pieces made by the 15- to 18-year-old artists: Exit signs are made more ambiguous, safety cones are made less erect, a chalk outline is given a smiling face. They're each an expression of a theme that the students, with the guidance of De Victoria and her fellow artist mentor, Francesco Lo Castro, came to on their own: the normalization of violence.
"This show comes from anxieties that are deep-rooted inside the things that we face every day," explains Kareena Rudra, a Ransom Everglades student living in Kendall. "And they’re normal. This show is kind of an expression [that] this should not be normal. Why is it just another day? Should it just be another day for us?"
Over the course of four weeks, students such as Rudra were given the tools to organize their own exhibition while also creating work through collaborative workshops. Aside from working with De Victoria and Lo Castro, students got to meet with local artists such as Octavia Yearwood and Jen Clay. Through group talks, the teens decided on a theme that began with a discussion of a now tragically familiar topic: school shootings. Lorie Mertes, the director of the Locust Art Builders program, says the conversation became much broader as students were pushed more to deepen their inquiry.
"One of the students raised their hand and said, 'Well, can we just talk about violence in general?'" Mertes recalls. "'Since the time I was 3 years old, I've known what gunshots sounded like.'"
Despite this broad approach to the topic, much of the show maintains the sense of coming from a small world — the world of a kid. But the work is far from limited. Lia Latty, a recent graduate from Miami Beach Senior High and the brain behind the exit signs, also helped Elizabeth Paola Vargas with a piece that centered on portraits of LGBTQ youth in Miami. Paired with the photographs are interviews detailing the subject's thoughts on hate crimes and inter-community violence.
"Appreciate that kids 18 and under have managed to make work like this," Latty insists. "I don’t think it’s a high-school show; it’s very much young people having a platform to make what they wanted to make."
The exhibition also covers more personal approaches to subjects such as internalized aggression. Rudra's contribution includes a poem and video installation addressing the sometimes self-imposed harm of trying to manipulate your own identity.
"It’s an internal violence that I’m putting onto myself," Rudra explains. "It’s been happening for so long that it’s sort of an everyday thing. It’s not strange because it’s something that I’m doing to myself."
One surprising element of the show, at least superficially, is the high level of sophistication in the students' work. According to De Victoria, that quality is mostly the result of encouragement rather than instruction. She stresses that she and Lo Castro were mentors, not teachers. It's this mining of the students' underlying potential that is most inspiring for Mertes.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"The goal is to nurture their creativity and their interests right now so that they have a really solid platform for having the confidence and creative problem-solving skills and collaboration skills to really be successful as a person," she says.
What's truly surprising, however, is not the accumulation of these students' creative energy into insightful and powerful art, but the circumstances that have brought it out of them. For most people over the age of 20, violence in high school doesn't go beyond cafeteria fistfights and fake bomb threats. Many students were content to know that shootings happened in other neighborhoods where kids might be in gangs or sell drugs. Their understanding of a teen's current reality doesn't go much further than news reporting and speeches. The artists in this exhibition know differently.
"The topic is more fresh and more real and something that we as adults don’t know," De Victoria says. "We can speculate, but really, their voice is the one that’s the trueness of what’s going on."
"Just Another Day." Through Saturday, July 28, at Locust Projects, 3852 N. Miami Ave., Miami; locustprojects.org. Admission is free.