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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

From anime to activism: Everything but the kitchen sink in Teen Art Group’s show at University Galleries

Three rows of photos in muted tones are lined up on a table. They show images of graffiti, a factory, trees and a child riding a bicycle, slightly blurred from being shot while on a train.
Jin Lee
University Galleries
For "In Living Color," photographer Jin Lee reprinted 30 of her 100 images from "Train View." Students in the Teen Art Group decided how to place the images, opting to line them up like train tracks and periodically rotating the images, symbolizing travel.

What happens when you get a bunch of teenagers in a room, feed them pizza and talk about art? As you might expect, they all have different ideas, but eclecticism and imagination have come together for “In Living Color.”

The fourth cohort of University Galleries’ Teen Art Group wrapped earlier this summer, and their culminating exhibition, “In Living Color,” is on display through Aug. 10. To create the show, a group of Bloomington High School art students curated works by several artists based on wide-ranging themes like anime, portraiture, outer space, racial issues, family issues, the environment and climate change.

University Galleries director and chief curator Kendra Paitz established the Teen Art Group in 2018 to provide more opportunities for high schoolers to develop their curatorial voices.

“I grew up in a small town and was really interested in art, but I only really knew that you could be an artist, an art teacher or an illustrator,” Paitz said. “Those are all really amazing options but there are so many other ways that one can exist in a creative field.”

Attempting to honor everyone’s interests, the group brainstormed a list of artists. Aaron Caldwell, Jin Lee, Rashod Taylor and Selina Trepp were on the list, among several others.

“I should say it’s a very subjective list,” said Paitz. “These are all artists I have some sort of connection with, because I knew I could reach out to them and say, ‘We’re working with teenagers; they want to be responsible for your work.’ I thought these artists would be excited about the chance to work with teenagers, and they were. They’ve all been incredible.”

Teen Art Group did workshops, studio visits and interviews with each of the artists, aiming to pick one for a solo show at the gallery. That proved impossible, Paitz said, so to make sure everyone’s ideas were included, “In Living Color” turned into a group show.

“The beauty of keeping this group small — we set a cap at 15 — is that we felt like we could develop a project in a way that they each got to work with an artist they were excited about.”

As the teens started to get to know the artists and pick pieces, they began to see loose threads connecting them, mainly related to environmental issues.

“They actually agreed on which works to ask each artist for pretty quickly,” Paitz said. “And then the artists were so wonderful to work with.”

Photographer and ISU art professor Jin Lee is one of the artists whose work is on display. Her series “Train View,” about her Amtrak commute to and from Chicago, is showing now at the Chicago Cultural Center. Lee worked with the students to create an adapted version for “In Living Color," reprinting 30 of the original set of 100 photos to lay out on a table near the gallery’s windows, facing Uptown Station.

“She said the students can do whatever they want with them,” Paitz said, “that they can handle them and can install them however they want.”

Aligned with the theme of train travel, the teens opted to lay out the photos in rows like railway tracks, with a rotating stack of photos at the end of the rows to imply movement.

Paitz said the students were excited by the freedom to determine how the series would be presented.

“When you give young people a few loose parameters and some resources, it’s really exciting and amazing to see what they come up with.”

“In Living Color” is on view at University Galleries in Uptown Normal through Aug. 10. The gallery is free and open seven days a week. For more information, visit galleries.illinoisstate.edu.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.