How the Art Start Portrait Project is Highlighting Black and Latino Youth

The exhibit is on display at the INOVA Gallery throughout the Milwaukee Film Festival.

TThe Art Start Portrait Project opens its doors for the second year in a row at the INOVA Gallery at Kenilworth Square East. The Project features portraits of young black and Latino boys from Milwaukee across the exhibition’s walls, along with short digital biographies. 

Art Start is a New York City-based youth arts organization, that focuses on youth throughout New York’s five boroughs. The group specializes in working with historically marginalized youth who have experienced homelessness, juvenile injustice or simply need extra support. The program uses creative processes to help children explore personal development and potentially discover a love for the arts.

The Art Start Project, which began in 2013, is a project that features both boys and girls, but this year Art Start decided to focus its “See Me Because” gallery on a department within Milwaukee Public Schools. The group partnered with the Black and Latino Male Achievement Department to make the show happen. 

Portrait of Omarion Hayes by Milwaukee-based photographer Nick Collura
Portrait of Richard Rivera by MIlwaukee-based photographer Kat Schleicher
There are 18 young boys featured in “See Me Because.” Each boy expresses different goals he hopes to achieve as they approach adulthood. Next to each portrait, multimedia biographies add motivational quotes and encouragement, not just for the kids, but for the readers too. 

Photos by New York-based photographer Zachary Maxwell Stertz

Johanna De Los Santos, a Milwaukee native who lived in New York for 20 years, has been the executive director of Art Start since 2007, and her passion for youth is apparent. We sat down with her to learn more about the Project.

On the history of the Portrait Project and Art Start: 

The Portrait Project is a project of Art Start. It started a few years ago in New York City with New York City youth, and because the impact of having the portraits available to the public to influence people and have an impact on how we see young people and specifically young people of color. It was something that caught on, and there were people in Milwaukee that saw the Project and thought that this would be really great.

On choosing to focus on Milwaukee Public Schools’ Black and Latino Achievement Department:

There’s an objective of the Black and Latino Male Achievement Department. They have 12 guiding principles that they work with young men of color to really help support them and guide them into their adulthood. But one of those has to do with changing the narrative about young men of color in the city of Milwaukee, and in a city where there is so much separation and segregation between communities, we often judge young people of color with a stereotype where we read statistics that don’t really fully represent who they are as individuals and human beings.

On what she loves most about Milwaukee: 

I’m a Milwaukee native, and I went to UWM for my undergraduate degree, I moved back here to raise my kids, they were born in the Bronx. I love Milwaukee, I think Milwaukee’s a really beautiful city. I love how determined people are here to create. There’s a really big surge right now since I’ve been gone for 20 years, and coming back people are really motivated to create for the purpose of the city we live in, and not just to leave. I’m also really inspired by the young people here. I have been able to connect with youth from all different areas of Milwaukee, everything’s separated, North Side, South Side, East Side, West Side, but they all have so much in common. They all see the potential in themselves and others.

If You Go

If you want to see the exhibit, the Art Start Portrait Project is on display in the INOVA Gallery throughout the Milwaukee Film Festival, which continues through the end of October. The installation will be up during teen night at the Milwaukee Art Museum on Dec. 6 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. For ways to volunteer or to sponsor the Project, visit Art Start