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.

Scatter Joy Art Ambassador Deborah Ross takes us on a journey to Africa

Deborah Ross, here with the Malagasy Comet Moth

The first time Deborah Ross realized the impact of her work drawing and painting with children in remote African villages, the renowned wildlife artist was collaborating on a book with Dr. Shirley C. Strum, director of the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project in the Laikipia Plateau region of Kenya.

This was in 1997, and the children in the community would crowd around her every time she began painting.

“I needed something to distract them and keep them out of the way. Otherwise, they would just stand there and stare at me, so I gave them paper and paint and they went and did their own paintings, which were really wonderful,” says Ross, who has devoted her career to conservation awareness through her expressive watercolor art.

She remembers one of the young Maasai boys layering on his colors, creating beautiful patterns with his work.

“None of these kids had prior experience. They just go — no inhibitions whatsoever,” says Ross, who never imagined those impromptu art projects would ultimately lead her to offer dozens of art workshops for children in several African countries.

This past summer, we selected Ross as our first Scatter Joy Art Ambassador, providing her with a grant to purchase art supplies for workshops in Madagascar. The New York City illustrator and fine artist, who is also on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts, travels annually to Africa to study and document the people, animals and landscapes there in her light, expressive hand.

Her workshops with the children are a constant source of wonder and delight.

“Often with my other work, I’m just alone working by myself. I do better when painting accompanied,” she says. “I really feed off of community. I get all hyped up. With the kids, there’s all that energy — the fun, the inspiration, the community. It’s really joyful.”

There are also the rewards of providing them with a new tool for self-expression and watching their absorption in the play of paint and paper.

“Because they don’t have computers or eat a lot of sugar, they really concentrate,” she says. “That surprised me from the start, their determination and their absolute focus on what we were doing and their realization of the importance of this work.”

Over the years, she’s received letters from many of her students expressing how much they miss her classes and thanking her for the joy she brought to their lives.

About 10 years ago, when she returned to the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project, a young man assisting on site asked her for paper and pencil.

“He went out and did the most elaborate drawings for me of the baboons and all of their activities — these beautifully layered, very detailed drawings,” says Ross. “I was just awestruck.”

She was convinced he was the very kid who had meticulously layered on color after color in his paintings a decade ago. Though one of the staff members dismissed her insistence, the young man gifted her with his paintings when she was leaving, inviting her to visit his home upon her return.

When she asked where his home was, she discovered he was indeed the boy, all grown up, that she’d remembered — and he’d been eagerly awaiting her return.

“That was a wonderful experience,” she says. “When I visit, some of the kids I taught who are now men will return to see me and come and paint with me.”

This past summer, she spent several weeks in Madagascar teaching children ages 10 and up in the rainforests of Ranomafana National Park, home to 13 lemur species.

Over the years, Ross’ paintings of lemurs and other wildlife in that region have led to assignments with “Natural History Magazine” — her illustration of a fat-tailed lemur appeared on one of its covers — and collaborations with the Lemur Conservation Foundation, for which she illustrated a series of children’s books with primatologist Dr. Allison Jolly.

The books have become central to conservation efforts in Madagascar, where slash and burn agriculture and illegal activities such as gold mining lead to erosion and water shortages that ultimately affect the survival of wildlife in Ranomafana, as well as the preservation of the forests.

Ross blends painting instruction with conservation education in her workshops.

One of the books Ross illustrated with primatologist Dr. Allison Jolly

It is vital, she believes, that the children have a sense of their own ecological identity and the role they can play in preserving the forest habitats where they live.

As a Scatter Joy Art Ambassador, she not only was able to provide art supplies for her workshops over the summer. She also used some of her grant money to help launch a new art curriculum in 12 Malagasy villages in partnership with the School of Visual Arts in the fall.

“I just want these kids to be proud of themselves and get confidence,” she says, “because I know how tricky their lives are going to be.”

The mission remains, the vision expands

Kathy Davis has always been interested in helping to inspire others to find and share joy through the arts. That passion has been a driving force throughout her career as the founder of her namesake greeting card and lifestyle brand.

It was also what fueled the launch of the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts, a nonprofit that made arts programming accessible to all through community classes, exhibits and live performance

That brick and mortar art center may have closed its doors but Scatter Joy still lives on, embodying Kathy’s mission to support the arts. Our social media continues to deliver inspiration and wisdom across multiple arts disciplines while encouraging the individual pursuit of creativity. And our art center now exists as a virtual philanthropic entity.

“Since my days as a high school art teacher, I have seen first-hand the way that art helps to enrich lives. And since then I have been fortunate to discover a career where I can use my creativity to help touch others’ lives in a positive way,” says Kathy. “I truly believe that art makes a difference.”

Scatter Joy continues to do just that with its Scatter Joy Ambassador program, recognizing the individuals and organizations nurturing creativity and using the arts to make an impact in communities not typically exposed to such resources. Its outreach will span local to international efforts.

Already, it has sponsored its first international grant to renowned wildlife artist and teacher Deborah Ross to fund art supplies for children in Madagascar. You can read more about Deborah and her philanthropic outreach in an upcoming blog post.

“While it was thrilling to watch our fledgling arts center make a difference in our own community,” says Kathy, “I am now excited about expanding my vision from local to global.”

Stay tuned to learn more about our upcoming philanthropic commitments and to see how you might play a role in contributing to the good we hope to inspire.