Voices of Youth: Here's how Mount Clemens area youth feel about creativity during COVID-19

Emily Ostrowski, an 11-year-old Seneca Middle School student who lives in the city of Macomb, has been sketching a lot since the pandemic started. Some of her recent drawings are portraits, which she enjoys making. At other times, however, she's ventured into more abstract territory.


The 11-year-old describes one of her more recent abstract pieces this way: "It has a lot of colors and stuff, oranges and blues. It's kind of crazy." Emily Ostrowski


Asked to elaborate on what it means, Emily says the picture represents her feelings about how things have been going lately. Life certainly hasn't been usual these last few months, with school and most of the places she likes to visit being shut down.


"Stuff we used to do in normal life, we can't really do it anymore," she says. "I used to go rollerskating. I used to go to restaurants, things like that. It’s really weird."


Emily also finds the masks many people are wearing and other aspects of social distancing to be strange. She isn't a big fan of doing schoolwork online, either. But things are starting to open up a bit lately, and she's happy about that. Her family recently took a trip to the Detroit Zoo, and visiting the tiger exhibit left a strong impression with her.


At home during her free time, she's been playing video games and spending time working on her art. But while she has been drawing a bunch, she still misses taking classes at Mount Clemens' Anton Art Center.


Her relationship with the arts center got going a few years back, when she took a ceramics class. More recently, she's enrolled in drawing and painting lessons.


"I really like it," she says. "It's cool being with teachers and other students. It really helps me become a better artist."


A longstanding cultural institution, the Anton Arts Center has been offering arts programming to the Mount Clemens area since 1969. It's primarily focused on putting together gallery exhibits for community groups and local artists and providing classes to kids and others interested in developing their arts skills. The arrival of COVID-19 earlier this year, however, definitely put a damper on those activities. So in recent months the center has adapted its programming by going online to share art and instructional videos.

"Virtual content is where we've been spending a lot of our efforts over the last few months," says Phil Gilchrist, Anton's executive director. "We're trying to balance all this new stuff with resuming the important programming that so much of our existing audience is really into. It will be some combination of both going forward."

For the time being all the art center's in-person exhibits have been postponed until at least September. However, the art center does plan to restart physical classes online in July, taking appropriate social distancing measures into account to protect staff and students.


In recent years, Anton has been working to expand its mission by doing things like sponsoring public art projects and engaging in active community outreach and off-site programming. The Jermaine Jackson Community Center is one of the organizations partnering with Anton in its community engagement efforts.


Located on the Corner of Clemens and Orchard Streets in Mount Clemens, the Jermaine Jackson Center is dedicated to serving local youth by providing learning opportunities, recreational activities and access to community services in a safe environment.


Reflections on life


Kyree Haye, a 16-year-old Mount Clemens High School student, is one of the many young people who've interacted with the Anton Art Center by way of the Jermaine Jackson Community Center. He's visited the arts center, helped with the physical setup of arts events at the community center and participated in arts workshops.


"Anton Art Center had a little station where you could learn how to do portraits. It was kind of hard to be honest, but it was fun to learn how to do it," he says. "It was a wonderful experience. It’s something I get to pass down to other people." Kyree Haye


Haye lives with his father in an area of Mount Clemens known as Across The Bridge. As with a lot of people, the last few months have been anything but normal for him, so much so that he misses going to school.


"I know I used to complain about going to school and stuff," he says. "But not going to school has been the hardest part [of the pandemic], not being able to see your friends and learn from the teacher."


As a basketball player with Mount Clemens High, Haye misses playing with his team. To pass time, he's been training on his own, playing with his sister and going for walks with his family.


One of the more memorable experiences he's had this summer is attending a Black Lives Matters protest at Shadyside Park. The rally, which addressed police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minnesota, was Haye's first protest. He felt compelled to go.


"I felt like I've got to speak up for other people," Haye says. "I just hope and pray that it doesn’t repeat. If it keeps repeating itself, we're not going to grow."


Over the last few months, he's also been exploring his creative side. While he's interested in working on his art skills at a later date with some supervision, right now it's been writing, not drawing, that's captured his attention. Lately, he's been keeping a journal.


This recent interest in writing was sparked by taking an elective high school class on poetry and hip-hop. Part of the class consisted of reading poems and songs and then watching videos of the authors performing them. That inspired Haye to start journaling about his daily experiences and reflections on life.


"It actually feels pretty good," he says. "It's another way to let off emotional steam. Everybody says you can see your emotions through how you play sports, and I think writing is another way."


Sharpening Skills


While Haye has been exploring this new creative way of looking at the world, 12-year-old Kaleigh Collins has been honing her skills. Like Emily, she attends Seneca Middle School, lives with her parents in Macomb and likes taking classes at the Anton Art Center. And like her classmate, she finds the new reality of social distancing frustrating.

"It’s aggravating," she says. "Because I want to go places, but I don’t want to wait in the line for hours so I sometimes choose not to go."
Kaleigh Collins

Unlike Emily, Kaleigh likes online schooling, saying it allows her more freedom to determine her own schedule. Lately, she's been passing time by swimming and playing video and board games. She's been working on her art too, but not so much on original material. Being cooped up at her house has robbed her of much of her inspiration.


"Normally, if I'm outside and I see a certain way somebody dresses or a certain landscape, then I like to go back home and draw it," she says. "But since I can't go outside, it's been hard to think of new ideas of what to draw, because I like to draw from life."


To keep up on her drawing these days, Kaleigh has been practicing with drawing books. She's also been working with clay to sculpt items like teacups and animals. More than anything, though, she can't wait for the reopening of classes at Anton.

"I miss the teachers and my class, because they’re all so friendly," she says. "They take your ideas and they love them, instead of trying to tell you you have to do something a certain way."

Art at Home

Erin Rutkowski, 18, has really been making the most of her time at home these last few months. A recent graduate of L'Anse Creuse High School, she's been living with her parents and brother in Harrison Township. And during the COVID-19 outbreak, Rutkowksi has gotten into doing her ceramics work from home.

She's been making pottery in her basementa little bit smaller than if it had been in the studioand even constructed her own pit fire kiln in her backyard to fire and glaze ceramics.

Unlike a lot of high school age students, she didn't mind being sent home a few months early, though it meant working on her joint high school and college coursework in a different environment then she's used to.

"I built the kiln for my college class," she says. "I would wake up in the morning, go outside and work on that for a few hours. It was nice. Except for school, I would kind of wake up and make my own schedule."

Erin Rutkowksi
Rutkowksi, who's employed as a lab technician at Anton, gets her supplies from the art center and has even returned there on a few Saturdays to film ceramics demonstrations for online viewers. For her, the ability to create ceramics and to work on visual art in her sketchbooks during the pandemic has been a real ray of light during a troubling time.

"This has kept me alive," she says. "It’s everything for me. It's expression. It’s a form of income. It's selling art...I don’t know what I would do with myself if I wasn’t keeping busy with art."


Moving forward, the 18-year-old is interested in pursuing art as a full-time career. She's set to attend the College for Creative Studies in Detroit later this year. The school has adopted a preparedness plan and for its fall semester will reopen its campus following strict social distancing and safety guidelines.


While COVID-19 infections appear to be on the rise again in Michigan, Rutkowksi is hopeful that the COVID-19 situation will improve over the next few years. That said, she is disappointed by what she sees as a failing of political and moral leadership by older Americans during the crisis. Reflecting on the handling of the outbreak and other recent events, she wishes people her age had more of a say about what's going on. She feels that they could do a better job of setting things right in the country than the older generations who are now running things in the United States.


"I feel like the younger generation care about each other more than ourselves," she says. "And so we kind of see where everyone else is coming from, and we're trying to have compassion for each other."

Voices of Youth is a series that will capture the youth perspective and narrative during the COVID-19 response to recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan

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