Fleisher’s inclusive Teen Lounge offers youth a safe space for self-expression


When Aigner LeMay’s mom first suggested to her daughter that she check out the Teen Lounge at Fleisher Art Memorial, the 18-year-old, then in eighth grade, balked.

She figured she had better things to do than hang out in an after-school program making art. But then she entered ninth grade at Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA) and decided the lounge, a free, drop-in creative program for youth 13 to 18, might not be such a bad idea. She began walking to the South Philly art school and gallery when her classes were over.

“It was really strict in school,” says LeMay, who graduated from high school last June. “I like this better because it’s freer.”

Despite graduating, she still makes her way to the lounge when she can, enjoying the creative comfort of a safe, friendly environment where she’s done everything from theater improv to making hula hoops over the last four years.

“I personally believe the arts are an essential part of education that are becoming increasingly difficult to access,” says Layla Ehsan, program coordinator for the Teen Lounge and also a painter and jewelry maker. “Having a program like this that’s free and drop-in is so valuable.

“It’s teen-driven — they make all kinds of decisions that affect the program — and it’s a good social environment. That’s what keeps people coming back.”

That’s also why Scatter Joy Center for the Arts has made the lounge the newest recipient of its Scatter Joy Art Ambassador Grant, which recognizes the individuals and organizations using the arts to make an impact in communities not typically exposed to such resources.

As a former high school art teacher, Scatter Joy founder Kathy Davis recognizes the importance of making arts opportunities available to teens, especially since many students aren’t able to fit art classes into their school day.

Having taken several classes at Fleisher herself, she became interested in the ways the school served its surrounding communities. The nurturing environment of the Teen Lounge instantly appealed to her.

“One of my favorite things is that the students themselves develop the programming by selecting the classes that interest them most. Not only does this give these teens the power to create their own curriculum,” says Davis, “it gives teachers and arts professionals the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these young people.”

The lounge runs three afternoons a week, from 4 to 6 p.m., with a wealth of offerings that include jewelry making, screen-printing, comic illustration, zine creation, pottery, dark room photography and stop-motion animation. The teens get one day of unscheduled free time, where they can draw, do homework, watch a movie or otherwise socialize. No registration is required. Teens from across Philadelphia — some traveling as much as 45 minutes to get there — can simply stop by the front desk and sign in.

“It’s a very accepting community,” says Abigail McClellan, 13, and a student at Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. “Everything’s been really relevant to what I’m interested in. And even if something’s not your favorite subject, you still get to learn new stuff and experiment.”

Though Abigail’s been taking art classes at Fleisher since she was 10, this is her first year coming to the lounge. Several of the teens have previously taken classes or had their parents take classes at the school.

But here the kids have true ownership over the space. The teaching artists they work with all submit proposals for the projects they’d like to teach and then the teens get to pick the projects that most excite them at proposal fairs held during the school year.

Lindsay Robbins, a Philadelphia-based interdisciplinary artist, was among the top vote-getters for the current season with her “Make It Glow” LED electronics workshop. To get the teens to think about how light can be used as a design element in visual art, she is teaching them beginning circuitry and basic soldering.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the tiny jars they’d wired with lighting flashed from a desk in the darkened studio.

“I really like working with teenagers and having a more personal glimpse into that age again,” says Robbins, who is teaching at Fleisher for the first time. “I love that the lounge is run by them and they’re choosing what artists they want to work with.”

Bill Lessa and Kathy Davis (center) present Fleisher Art Memorial Executive Director Elizabeth Grimaldi with a Scatter Joy Ambassador Grant.

Teaching artists get paid $600 plus a $50 materials fee. Being able to share their skills and talents with the kids in the environment fostered in the Teen Lounge is uniquely rewarding.

“To have that safe space that is welcoming of whoever you want to be is vital for people of this age. You can be accepted and feel free to try different ways of expressing your identity. That’s so rare,” says Robbins,

Even the lounge’s community guidelines have been crafted by its youth. They pledge, among other promises, to be mindful of others’ personal space and boundaries, to be inclusive and respectful and to take responsibility for conflicts by listening, offering solutions and engaging in open conversations. What they pledge not to do is just as important: use language or imagery that is in any way discriminatory, offensive, aggressive, or otherwise shaming and intentionally harmful.

“I love the atmosphere. No one judges you,” says one 13-year-old, a home-schooled student who chooses to go by her artist name Queen Proxy. “I love art and I can fit in here as an individual and an artist.”

While she’s “devoting (her) life to art” — “I want to be a renaissance artist. I want to cook, sculpt, bake, paint, do architecture, everything,” she says — not all students share such aspirations.

Aigner is also interested in math and politics and heavily involved in the Philadelphia Student Union. Still, the Teen Lounge is supporting more than her artistic potential.

“There are lots of opportunities to practice leadership here,” says Ehsan, who served as a teaching artist in 2016. “Having a space like this also helps with some of the obstacles that kids might face, like scheduling and a home life that’s hard.”

Fleisher Art Memorial executive director Elizabeth Grimaldi is grateful to have the school recognized for such a unique program that provides a safe space for young artists to express themselves among like-minded peers.

“We are thrilled to be awarded this Scatter Joy Ambassador Grant, which generously supports (our) Teen Lounge program,” she says. “This grant will allow them to continue exploring a wide range of mediums.”

This winter, those will include experimenting with pyrography, ceramic vessels, creative writing and bookmaking.