A Day at St. Elmo Village FINDING CREATIVE INSPIRATION WHILE EXPLORING ONE OF LOS ANGELES' HIDDEN TREASURES

by Anissa Barton-Thompson, ACP/UGM

Beauty is where you find it...

I recently had an opportunity to combine a few things I love - creative arts, working with kids, learning about local communities, and of course, technology - together for one incredibly inspiring day. The scholarship ministry at my church always looks for ways to engage our students and their parents in unique events, usually involving learning about culture, STEM and the arts. This year, I was tasked with finding a venue, and I suggested a long-time favorite: St. Elmo Village, in the heart of Los Angeles.

"We nurture the positive aspects of life, directing the youth to pursue achievable goals, and helping adults rediscover their creative spirit."

This beautiful, quaint artist village houses resident artists in a row of converted bungalow-style homes on a property nestled in the middle of a bustling neighborhood near the Wilshire District, not far from Downtown Los Angeles.

"The philosophy of St. Elmo Village is that all people are creative and powerful in their own way... through sharing the creative process, we encourage self-confidence and self-esteem through the arts."

At first glance, passersby may not even realize how much hidden beauty is just behind these walkways... partially because of the vast array of plant species that grow all over the property, all donated from residents and visitors (starting with actor Jeff Bridges in 1969, when he donated the first 2 plants).

Walking from the street down one of the three connected driveways to the back of the complex, you'll see the entire ground is covered in artwork, painted by both the children of the neighborhood and visitors who've come from all over the world.

At the back of the complex behind the 5 street-facing bungalows, sits what used to be the horse stables of Mary Pickford (the famous silent movie-era actress); the full length of the building was converted into a studio workshop and gallery where children are invited to come, create, and explore!

On any given day, this blooming garden hosts: children from local schools and after-school programs; adults and seniors coming for arts workshops; drumming groups and local musicians, etc.

Found art, metal sculpture, mixed media, landscape, colorful artwork, all finds home in St. Elmo Village.

On a quiet, 76-degree, clear-blue-sky day like the day we went, we found simple peace.

Student-built pond in the rear of the campus

The complex was founded by Roderick and Rozzell Sykes, nephew and uncle respectively, both successful visual artists. In 1969, they, along with other artists, decided to present their work as a group and in their own environment - this was the birth of St. Elmo Village as an art space. Although Rozzell passed in 1994, Roderick expanded the reach of the village, promoting and encouraging youth to get and stay involved with creative expression. He, along with his wife and fellow artist-in-residence Jacqueline Alexander-Sykes, continue to do so today.

Jacqueline Sykes provides a walking tour, telling the complete history of the Village, and showcasing her paintings and those of other artists in residence in one of the 2 main galleries.

After eating lunch in the garden, taking the tour of the Village and visiting the gallery, it was time to get to work. We arranged for a collage session, and entered the workshop ready to create! Parents and kids alike all got to work (except for me, forever in photographer mode).

All kinds of material were already provided; however, if a child couldn't find what they were looking for, it became an exercise in improvisation... usually resulting in better-than-expected creations!

I must admit: I was worried that the older kids may not have been as excited about participating in such a "kiddie" activity; but two things changed that perspective. First, all of the adults were making collages, having fun, and even getting to let their "inner child" out to play. (We were all silly and the moms loved it!)

Second, it allowed me an opportunity to involve technology. The workshops are normally "cell phone-free zones", where everyone is encouraged to leave the texting and Snap-chatting for later, and enjoy a more traditional level of creativity; however, I enlisted volunteer photographers to help me capture the key moments of our day, farming out my Canon DSLR and iPad for random spot videos and photo-taking demos. (In fact, more than 2/3 of the photos taken for this Spark and in our Flickr album were taken by our students!)

Cory, the young man in the photos below, wasn't really inspired to create a collage, opting to cover his board with a bright gold metallic paper. By the time we wrapped our workshop, he had created another board with silver, and commenced to experimenting with how reflected light changes photo composition!

Before and Afters: Top Row - Gold Reflector | Bottom Row - Silver Reflector

I would say that overall, the experience was exceptional - most students said they couldn't wait to come back! They shared what the made, but more importantly, they shared why they made what they made, what motivated them, and what they wanted to say. A few students said they felt like they wanted to learn more about art in general; two said they wanted to get "real" cameras to learn more about photography!

Over the next few weeks, we plan to show the students how they can use their newfound creative and photography skills in online tools like Adobe Spark. In the meantime, I hope that they have other opportunities like this, in their schools, at home, wherever they are to be creative, nourish their inner artistry, find new ways to express themselves... and I hope to continue to be able to be a part of that. There really is no bigger joy... or amazing beauty.

If you're interested in seeing or supporting St. Elmo Village, please visit http://stelmovillage.org!

Anissa Barton-Thompson is an Adobe Community Professional, User Group Co-Manager of LA Web Professionals Group, and a Social Media Specialist, Web Developer and Adjunct Faculty at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She enjoys volunteering her time teaching technology and STEM for youth organizations.

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