SeeSaw Studio gives voice to young artists

By Claire Atwell

UNC Staff Writer

the Durham VOICE

Desiree Sanders, 15, doesn’t spend her weekday afternoons hanging out at the mall or watching television like many other high school students.

Instead, Tuesdays through Thursdays she goes to SeeSaw Studio, a free afterschool program in Durham, to practice drawing and designing.

Desiree Sanders, Zahra Karin and Muhammad Karin work on projects at SeeSaw Studio while Michelle Gonzalez and Tony Johnson look on. (Photo by Claire Atwell)

Desiree Sanders, Zahra Karin and Muhammad Karin work on projects at SeeSaw Studio while Michelle Gonzalez and Tony Johnson look on. (Photo by Claire Atwell)

“It’s really interesting and so much fun,” said Sanders, who started the program a few weeks ago. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do.”

SeeSaw Studio gives teenagers the opportunity to gain design-based entrepreneurship skills in a supportive environment.

With posters on the wall such as “Be above normal” and “Never say never,” SeeSaw is a safe haven for students like Sanders to hone their artistic ability not always appreciated in schools.

Much of the support comes from Michelle Gonzales, executive director of SeeSaw Studio. She teaches classes in the studio’s areas of concentration, including screen-printing, jewelry making and graphic design.

“I’m loving that,” Gonzales said Thursday while looking at Sanders’ project.

SeeSaw Studio has been in the community for over 10 years. With about 10 students enrolled, it aims to teach students how to market their skills in the professional world.

“We have a coach that comes once a week to talk about entrepreneurship and marketability,” Gonzales said. Each student creates a brand and company for his or her designs.

Zahra Karin, 13, just finished designing a new logo for School House of Wonder, a nature education program for children and adults.

“My company is called Vortex Designs,” Karin said, showing off her drawings in a handmade sketchbook.

Students make the sketchbook as one of their first projects at SeeSaw with the help of Gonzales and volunteer Tony Johnson.

Johnson, 18, started coming to SeeSaw in the ninth grade when it was recommended to him by his probation officer. And even though he graduated from high school — and the program — in May, he still volunteers at the studio frequently.

“I come by whenever Michelle needs me,” he said while sweeping the gallery floor.

When he’s not cleaning up or giving tours, Johnson is teaching and mentoring the young designers who now sit in the same desks and beanbag chairs he occupied just a few years ago.

“These kids have certain skills they don’t even know is art until they get here,” Johnson said.

Students learn as much as they can about every area before choosing something that truly interests them. For Johnson, it was screen-printing.

“Screen-printing is just what I was really into. It was the thing that interested me the most,” said Johnson, who hopes to one day start his own T-shirt business.

SeeSaw Studio was founded in 1998 by Stephen Wainwright as a response to schools and community programs cutting their budgets for the arts. It moved to its location at 410 W. Geer St. in Northeast Central Durham just over a year ago.

The studio has a darkroom, a gallery for students to showcase their work and a back room where Gonzales teaches classes.

And on a Thursday afternoon in October, that room held a class focused on drawing faces. Gonzales had her students, including Karin and Sanders, start by drawing dozens of circles to perfect the form.

“Now choose one circle and rock with it,” Gonzales told them.

Students made their circles into cracked eggs and peaches using their charcoal to smudge and shade. Students then practiced using shapes and lines to form a lifelike face, but not the same face found in many drawing books.

“Most of the books you will look at teach faces with Caucasian features,” Gonzales said. “Today, we’re going to learn how to draw an African face.”

Gonzales teaches her students to embrace their differences and use it to their advantage in their artistic works.

SeeSaw Studio’s next show, “Where the Wild Things are,” will coincide with the new movie by the same name. The show will give students the opportunity to create their own interpretations of monsters through various mediums.

Regardless of what their monster may be, it is being kept at bay while the students spend time at SeeSaw Studio.