Elysa Voshell is Associate Director and Gallery and Public Programs Director for Venice Arts, The youth arts non-profit ignites, expands, and transforms the lives of Los Angeles’ low-income youth through photography and film education, and uses its participatory storytelling practices to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities around the world. Elysa is also a curator, writer, and artist working primarily in photography, printmaking, book arts, and installation.
We spoke on August 22, 2017 at La Conversation café in West Hollywood.
PE: Will you introduce yourself?
EV: I’m Elysa Voshell. I'm the Associate Director of Venice Arts where I've been for eight years. Prior to that, I lived in Philadelphia and worked at the Institute of Contemporary Art as a staff writer. When I'm not arts administrating, I'm a printmaker and book artist.
PE: What's the mission of Venice Arts?
EV: Venice Arts’ mission is to transform the lives of low-income youth through photography and film education. We've been around for almost 25 years. We started at a time when photography was in a very different place. It was pre-digital. We were working in a donated darkroom in a basement with a very small group of kids and then grew over time. We still have a darkroom component to what we do even though much of our work has moved to the digital realm.
The second part of our mission is empowering all types of communities, but largely disenfranchised or underserved communities, to tell their stories through photography and film. To that end, we generally do one big international project every year or every two years. Those sometimes take the form of working directly with communities, or sometimes working with another nonprofit organization to train their staff in how to use storytelling for advancing their missions.
PE: Why did you choose photography?
EV: Our first program was a documentary photography project called Venice Through Our Eyes, modeled on the internationally renowned work of Jim Hubbard, founder of Shooting Back and later Venice Arts’ Creative Director. We chose photography because of the power that giving a kid a camera has to enable them to find their voice and reflect on and shape their world. As an organization, we believe that self-expression, particularly through the arts, has the potential to transform and empower young people to see greater possibilities for themselves and for their communities.
PE: If I were a kid coming into your program, what kind of programming would be available to me? You’re teaching photography?
EV: Yes, we teach photography and filmmaking. We have a mentoring model so we try to have no more than three kids for every adult in the class, and we cap our classes at 12 kids so they're getting a lot of one-to-one or small group education. It’s very different from the school experiences that a lot of them are having, where they might be in a class of 35 kids.
For the littlest kids, ages 6 to 9, we have a class called Art Discovery where they're experimenting with all different types of arts media and learning about visual storytelling. It's really hands on and interactive.
For the 10 to 18 year olds, we have a sequential media arts program with classes in photography, filmmaking, an open studio class that combines photography, filmmaking, and multi-media, and a comics class.
PE: How do kids find you?
EV: We do outreach in local schools and social service agencies that work with low-income families, and some of it is word of mouth. We give priority to currently enrolled students, so from session to session we'll have about 60–70% of the kids continuing from a previous term. We really see the most impact when students continue over a period of time. The average time that students stay with us is about three and a half years. We have some students who might just take one class, and then others who stay for years and years and really develop as young artists.
PE: Can you say something about the kind of impact that you see from the experience of going through this program?
EV: For me one of the most profound things is seeing kids develop their own creative voice and the power that has for them as humans, not just as artists. Some of them are going to go on and be artists and some of them will go on and do other things, but I think that spark of creativity serves you in whatever you do and is so vital. That’s really lacking in a lot of current educational pedagogy, unfortunately.
When we did our last strategic planning we got to do focus groups with the kids, which is my favorite part of the planning. Not that talking to our funders isn't great too! Doing a focus group of 10 to 13-year-olds was amazing because they were so excited to share what they thought of their experience. A lot of them talked about Venice Arts being a place where they felt like they could be themselves, or they felt seen for who they were, or they felt like they learned how to express themselves and that they then had a different skill or perspective than some of their peers at school. Or that in school everyone learns everything in the same way and here they could really be creative and mix it up. It was also great to hear their perspectives on some of their older peers and their achievements. Some of the younger kids were talking about seeing the teenagers win awards or get into colleges or get to take trips--we have been partnering for three or four years with a group in Arizona that takes kids to the Grand Canyon-- and seeing those experiences that would be available to them if they continue. It was really cool to see that motivation and goal-setting and striving attitude.
PE: Now you also exhibit the students' work from time to time?
EV: We do.
PE: Do other people from the community come? Do their parents come? Their peers? What's that like?
EV: Every year we do a big culminating exhibition in May that features all of the students that have taken class with us during the academic year. Every student who has been in the academic year session will have at least one piece in the show. All the parents come. We do it as a huge potluck and it’s really, really fun. We also do a screening of a selection of student films. The members of the community come out and see that as well, and then we generally keep that exhibition up for the summer so that the new kids coming in for summer camp come into an environment where they're surrounded by work by their peers and see the type of work that those students do during the academic session.
Occasionally we also will do special exhibitions or screenings of student work. Last year we did a screening at Culver Studios of a curated selection of student films including a documentary short that our advanced film students were doing. This year students created a big body of work around the theme of Venice Stories. Students were interviewing and photographing and making film pieces about the history of Venice, Venice artists, long-time Venice residents, and other aspects of the community. We’re going to launch our 25th anniversary year with that exhibition in January.
PE: Do you think that there's something important about it being an exhibition about Venice, in Venice, for the people of Venice? Is it important for people to be able to see themselves in the art that they are experiencing?
EV: I think seeing the history of your community and placing yourself within that is vitally important for anyone, but especially for kids and young people who are trying to figure out their place in the world. A lot of the work that the students do is documentary in nature and is focused on either personal storytelling or community storytelling. They're really situating themselves, and their own personal or family history, within this context of the wider community. I think people are hungry for that. The exhibition that we have up in our space right now is an anomaly for us because it features painting and we primarily show photography in our gallery, but the painter was involved with us as a young person in our earliest days, and she is now a practicing artist. She had this whole body of work that she made about her experience growing up in Venice in the 1970s and ’80s called West of Lincoln. We had a huge outpouring of people for the opening. It was packed. I had to send staff out to get more food in the middle of the reception!
Long-time Venice residents and new Venice residents were really excited to see that history on the wall and connect with other people in the community. There were people who had gone to high school together who were reconnecting after 20 or 25 years. I think for young people who are trying to figure out where they are in the world and where they want to go, feeling empowered to tell their own story is incredibly powerful.
PE: When you have a student exhibition and people come, are kids nervous about showing their work? Are they excited to show it? How do they respond to feedback?
EV: We do a lot of critiquing in the workshops. Peer review and critique is a component of all of the workshops from the youngest kids all the way to the advanced studies class, so they're really used to that critique space. It's different when you're in a group of peers that you've come to know and trust than to put it out there for everyone to see, but I think having that practice of critique makes them more comfortable with showing their work. I've seen it with various students over time that come to us and are kind of shy, and through their experience with Venice Arts really open up and become more able to share their work.
We have one young alumnus who came to the opening that we had a couple weeks ago-- she graduated from UCLA and just launched a business. She's interested in photographing pregnant women, maternity photographs. She had these cards she had made and she said, "I booked my first paying client!”
PE: That's a big moment!
EV: I know! This is someone who was really shy when she came to us and to be booking clients and putting her work out there and photographing at weddings and those kinds of settings; she's transformed. She has really transformed.
PE: That's amazing. What else? I remember a statistic about the college attendance of the kids that go through your program. Can you say something about that?
EV: Yes. Of the students that graduate from our advanced studies program, the teenagers who are in our most advanced workshops, 100% of them have been going off to college.
PE: How is that possible?
EV: It's kind of amazing. Many of them are the first of their families to go to college. These are low-income kids, and most of them are going on to four-year schools. Part of that is that we really support them in their applications to college. We have a college track component of our program. Starting with the middle school students and their families, we have trainings about college where we have college counselors come in and talk with them; we have people who work with the kids one-on-one on portfolio development for their college applications and their personal statements; and we help the families understand the process of applying for financial aid because it's very complicated, especially for parents who themselves haven't had that experience. It's a lot to navigate. We've been building that component of what we do so we can best support the students.
PE: That's quite an accomplishment. I was so impressed by it. I know I bring it up every time I see you. This Venice Arts alumnus that's showing at your gallery now-- is she an artist professionally?
EV: She is.
PE: So some of these kids might actually turn to the arts as a career and some might not.
EV: Some might not, which is also fine. We had one student maybe five years ago in our program and she really wanted to be a veterinarian. Very talented photographer, but she really wanted to be a vet. She applied to UC Davis, got in, was the first in her family to go to college. Evidently they have a great veterinary medicine program there. She said, "I always want to do photography as a hobby, but this is what I want to do as a career," and that's great too. Our goal is to develop young artists, but it's not necessarily to develop them as professional artists, just to develop them as creative human beings so they can excel at whatever they're doing after they leave our program.
PE: Is there anything that you do that we haven't talked about?
EV: One other component of our Creative Pathways program, which focuses on college and career, is an internship program. We have internship placements at our facility and also in partnership with creative businesses. We've partnered with all sorts of post-production studios, photographers, filmmakers, advertising agencies—all types of creative businesses—so that students have on-the-ground work experience and get to feel out where they might want to go. That's been a small but important component.
Remember these are kids from low-income families. Between 51 and 53% of our families are living in poverty. These are federal guidelines that are adjusted by county, but living in poverty in Los Angeles, a very expensive city, is tough for families.
PE: What is the guideline?
EV: We use HUD guidelines, Housing and Urban Development. It depends on the family size. For a family of four, poverty is defined as an annual income of $27,050 or less.
EV: So these are kids who have a creative drive but might not know how they can make that into a career or might not even know what other types of careers are available to them. We enroll a lot of first-generation kids as well, so just opening up that sense of possibility for them and introducing them to various pathways for their future is what we try to do.
PE: Thank you Elysa!
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. To learn more about Venice Arts visit www.venicearts.org.