Credit: Gabi Mendick

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Linda Campbell was a parent struggling to understand her 13-year old daughter Jasmine Smith. Smith has ADD and couldn’t focus or make friends in middle school. But she did like to draw. Her teachers showed her mom images Smith sketched on her class assignments. So, Campbell sought out an affordable art program to nurture Smith’s talent and found ArtReach GW, which offers free fine arts after school education, therapeutic art classes, and advanced fine arts college preparation. The program is geared toward youth and their family members.

“I came in and after the first class I almost cried,” Campbell says. “I was like, oh my gosh, all of these—I’m about to cry now—all of these children are just like my daughter.”

ArtReach was founded in 1992 as Corcoran ArtReach, a museum outreach program at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design. In 2005, ArtReach became an inaugural partner of the 110,000 square footTown Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) located in Ward 8 and run byBuilding Bridges Across the River, a nonprofit dedicated to improving lives east of the Anacostia. THEARC provides free services to residents in its surrounding neighborhoods.

THEARC started as one building; in 2018, it expanded to two. Partners that join ArtReach in the east building are Levine Music, The Washington Ballet, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, and Washington School for Girls. Partners housed in the west building are Apple Tree Institute, Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, Children’s National Clinic, The Phillips Collection, and The Meditation Center (part of the David Lynch Foundation). Along with arts, education, and enrichment, basic needs like medical care, dental care, and haircuts are offered at a significantly reduced price or no cost.

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THEARC’s community engagement manager Meisha Mcleod says that ArtReach stands out from other partners since “they’re a partner that really focuses on a whole family model.”

Both of Ana Cardoso’s daughters, ages 4 and 9, take classes at ArtReach. Cardoso herself takes classes, including a stress relief art class for adults and transcendental meditation. She grew up in a working class family where there wasn’t much time for enrichment. “I’ve always wanted that opportunity for my child, for my children,” Cardoso says. “To have opportunities that will open their eyes.”

For Campbell, ArtReach had a life-changing effect on her and her daughter. “Not only has it made it easier for me to communicate with her, but just understand her as an individual and as an artist,” Campbell says. “And it’s given me so much drive to support her.”

Jasmine is thriving at ArtReach. She’s made friends there, and is applying to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to continue her art education.

ArtReach gives kids access to teachers who understand where they’re coming from. Teacher Chinedu Felix Osuchukwu grew up in Northeast D.C. and remembers “not having all the tools to do the art and do art like I wanted it to be done.”

Osuchukwu completed high school at Duke Ellington, then earned a bachelors at the Corcoran and a master of fine arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He was recently appointed a commissioner of theDC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, as a representative of Ward 7.

“I just use that [commissioner title] to let my students know about the success in arts,” Osuchukwu says. “And let my students know if I can do it, you can do it, too.”

Nearly all ArtReach instructors are Corcoran graduates, and its art therapist is a GW alum. “It’s not like they just give them any teachers; they give them the best teachers,” Campbell says. “They treat the children the way I would expect they treat the children in upper Northwest or other parts of town where they could possibly, potentially afford to pay the full tuition.”

Outside of the classroom, ArtReach takes students on field trips to museums and galleries throughout the District. The program also draws in people from the surrounding neighborhood at its ownArtReach GW Community Gallery at THEARC. 

Local artistMara Wilson had her first solo exhibition, Two Years Without Shoes, at the ArtReach gallery in the summer of 2018. The exhibit stems from two years she spent living in a village in South Africa while serving in the Peace Corps, and was a way for her to draw parallels between South Africa and Southeast D.C. “There’s a richness that a lot of people overlook,” she says. “So the richness of living in Southeast is the fact that you have people who live in your community for decades and generations. The same thing happens in the villages of South Africa.”

ArtReach leadscommunity projects that highlight the area’s intricacies. In the Community Portrait Project, for example, students created and displayed portraits of people who are making an impact in their neighborhood. On Nov. 25, Wilson is leading aCommunity Portrait Workshop in which participants learn to use cardboard and brown paper to depict African American hairstyles.

When the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design became a part of George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 2014, ArtReach began to operate under the GW Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. “Now that we’re part of the Nashman Center, we’re trying to implement more civic engagement in our program [at THEARC],” ArtReach director Aselin Flowers says.

Community Gardens, for example, was an ArtReach project that gathered information about the history of gardens around THEARC. This informed community-driven artworks at sites in the neighborhood like Wayne Place, Bethel Christian Fellowship, and Union Temple Baptist Church.

“THEARC is a beautiful gem in the community,” Wilson says. “I just hope that as the city changes, that we don’t lose that.”

Join Mara Wilson’s Community Portrait Workshop from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE.