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Local art program helps students in Cleveland stay off the streets and on a path of success

Posted: 4:34 PM, Jan 01, 2018
Updated: 2018-01-02 00:21:21Z

With more than 250 people murdered in Cleveland over the past two years, an entire generation of kids have grown up with violence. The organizers of one program, however, have managed to keep scores of young men and women on the right path through art and entrepreneurship. 

Arts 4 Peace, a program created and hosted by 99 Treasures and Peace in the Hood, recently moved into a new gallery in the 13000 block of Kinsman Road in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. On every wall in the home-turned-gallery, are dozens of works of art. A majority of them were handcrafted by kids who are still going through middle and high school.

Even on New Year’s Day, Jonathan Alexander, 9, and De’Erik Johnson, 13, are hard at work with a paintbrush and pen in hand.

“I can make the brush dance,” Alexander said. “I like to draw my own experience.”

Alexander said his inspiration comes from his oftentimes wild and eccentric dreams. One time, he drew himself as a gingerbread man in a city made of candy. Johnson, on the other hand, is more focused on the color and feeling that art incorporates.

“When you paint, you can show color in it,” Johnson said. “It brings color to a blank canvas, which is what I really like about painting.”

Both Johnson and Alexander have been in the Arts 4 Peace program for many years. Johnson started when he was just eight years old. On this day, he’s working on a custom painting that was ordered online by a customer.

“Art is therapy. Art makes you smart,” said Raj Ali, the artistic director for Arts 4 Peace. 

Raj helped start the program about a decade ago. Just recently, the program was able to secure space for its own gallery. As part of the program, the students will create works of art – whether it is a painting, jewelry or woodcraft – and then offer the pieces for sale. The kids will then earn a profit after the cost of materials is deducted. Not only does the program teach the kids the finer aspects of art, but it also gives them business and social skills.

“They have to keep track of their sales with this form,” Ali said. “They have to track their own inventory. Etiquette, social skills, business skills, we teach them all of that from the cradle to the grave.”

The program allows the kids a way to stay on the straight-and-narrow through the freeform nature of artistic expression.

“This is a benefit in school,” Johnson said. “They’ve taught me how to apply for a job. It helps me have a better chance in applying for that job. They’ve taught me how to communicate and how to find different ways to express myself other than talking.”

The program has also taught Johnson and Alexander the value of self-worth. Both children were at one time in the foster care system. 

“I have someone to turn to in case the people I usually turn to aren’t there. They’re here to help me out,” Johnson said. 

The young artists' wares can be found at the gallery, as well as online.