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Lisa Tran, a senior at D’Iberville High School, Ava Prisk, with one of the pieces she worked on during an artists’ residency for teens sponsored by the Friends of Art, Culture and Education in Ocean Springs. The teens’ art is on display at the Ohr-O’Keefe through May 1, 2021.

Ebony Samuels, a 15-year-old artist from Gulfport, was struggling to choose the theme for the portfolio of work that would soon go on display in her first-ever public exhibition.

At first, she thought, she’d do “a deep meaningful thing, like a big epiphany about the world or whatever.”

“But then I got super bored with it,” she said. “So I was just like, what’s something I like, what’s something I‘ve never drawn before and what’s something that would actually catch my interest. When I came up with it, I’m really in the mood to draw elves.”

And that’s what she did.

Samuels was one of five teenage girls from across the Coast selected to participate in an artists’ residency for teenagers, sponsored by the Friends of Arts, Culture and Education (FACE) and instructed by artist Rudy King. The artists work in a range of mediums, from painting and photography to digital art.

Starting in January, they met every Saturday at the Twelve Oaks Nature Preserve to hear from guest artists, critique each other’s work, and plan their exhibition which is now on display at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi. Each artist produced and refined five works over the course of the residency.

It was a rare opportunity for talented young artists to get free, rigorous instruction and learn from peers from different backgrounds. And it just so happened that the five strongest applicants King reviewed came from young women.

At first, they talked about what concepts they wanted to explore in their portfolios and how to select a theme to unify their work. Then they moved on to peer critiques, where they had to learn how to give and receive specific feedback about each other’s pieces. Finally, they learned how to prepare their show itself, from their display cards to the name.

They eventually settled on LAANE, for each of their first initials: Lisa Tran, Abby Smith, Ava Prisk, Nicholette Harville, and Ebony Samuels.

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Five Coast teen artists participated in a residency through the Friends of Art, Culture and Education from January to April 2021. They worked in this studio at the Twelve Oaks Nature Preserve. Alyssa Newton

An artists’ residency, not school

King’s focus as an instructor was on helping the students learn to think of themselves as future professional artists.

“When I met the majority of them that first day, I realized I didn’t have to teach them any art techniques or lessons,” King said. “What I was there to teach them is the confidence building, the networking building, and what that looked like.”

To that end, they were visited by a number of artists working on the Coast. Their guests included Carmen Lugo, a painter and illustrator who also teaches art classes at FACE, sculptor Sabrina Stallworth, and Corey Christy, the outreach coordinator at the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.

Lisa Tran, a senior at D’Iberville High School, hopes to have a career in art, so the practical advice was helpful.

“They gave me more information that I feel like maybe it’ll help me in the future,” she said. “It could help me prepare and understand what to do. So I don’t have to be alone.”

They also spent time talking and walking around the nature preserve.

“I realized the best way to go about this program is to make it as organic as it can be,” King said. “They already do school weekly. This isn’t school.”

When the Sun Herald visited one Saturday, the artists had finished their structured work for the afternoon and were gathered in the workshop with some of their pieces.

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Ava Prisk, a junior at Ocean Springs High School, with some of the art she worked on as part of the residency sponsored by the Friends of Art, Culture and Education in Ocean Springs. Their art is on display at the Ohr-O’Keefe through May 1, 2021. Alyssa Newton

The conversation ranged from sources of artistic inspiration (for Ava Prisk of Ocean Springs, the song “Pink In the Night” by Mitski) to how these days it seems like every toddler has an iPad.

“We didn’t have those growing up,” Prisk said.

“And when you see them mindlessly watching the same video over and over, it’s like they’re brain-dead,” Samuels said. “Go play with your blocks!”

Pushing past nerves to discuss their art

One of the most difficult parts of the residency was learning how to critique each other’s work, several artists said.

At one point, Samuels remembered, King told them: “Y’all are being too nice!”

“After the first two critiques we started actually pointing out things that were wrong instead of being like, ‘Oh, I love the colors,’ Samuels said. “I know a lot of the times I get ideas from them when we do our critiques. I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know how to translate that into my picture. They’ll say. ‘You could do this, this, and this. I’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah!’”

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Rudy King instructed an artists’ residency for teens from January through April 2021. Alyssa Newton

Abby Smith, a photographer who lives in Gulfport, had never participated in a group critique before. At first, she said, it was “really nerve-wracking.”

“But eventually, as we all got more confident about our pieces and got better at talking about our art, it was a lot more constructive and fun because we all knew and trusted each other,” she said.

Several of the artists also said they initially found it hard to talk about what a piece meant or why they had made a particular choice. The residency taught them how to do that.

It also pushed them to focus: In order to finalize five pieces over a roughly four-month period, they were expected to spend 10 to 15 hours per week working on their art outside of the residency.

That process culminated in the public show at the Ohr-O’Keefe, which ran through April and ends on Saturday, May 1.

Several of the artists will volunteer at the museum’s art camp this summer. Tran, who is graduating this year, will study art in college.

King is leaving the Coast, but she hopes the residency will take place again with a different instructor.

Early on, King said, a few of the artists said they wanted their work to speak to everyone. King told them their art wasn’t for everyone, a lesson they probably wouldn’t get anywhere else.

“When you get yourself out of that mentality, that trend-ish mentality, then you’ll be a really great artist,” she said. “You can’t create for people. You’ll break your back and have a huge headache.”

Isabelle Taft covers communities of color and racial justice issues on the Coast through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms around the country.