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Brilliant 10th Anniversary - Winnipeg Graffiti Gallery Changing Lives for 10 Years

WINNIPEG.- Written By Zhenni Zhao - The Winnipeg Graffiti Gallery, a graffiti legend celebrated its tenth anniversary yesterday evening August 21, 2008, Thursday. For the interests in art, I attended the reception.

This unique nonprofit community gallery started the celebration opening reception with the exhibition of brilliant works of the 30 year-old legend Erni Vales. Vales is a graffiti legend from New York, came to Winnipeg to paint a mural with the local artists on the Graffiti Gallery's indoor walls. The successful opening reception started at 8 pm and lasted till mid-night. The gallery has been committing to change high-risk youth lives for 10 years since 1998.

The gallery has high ceilings, a large floor area with a catwalk facing the main floor, and a basement. The original plan was an exhibition of Vales' own artwork, but then he came up with the idea of collaborating. The brilliant graffiti on the gallery indoor walls proved the result of a successful committed teamwork. Individual artists expressed their strong desire and enthusiasm for art. The most important is that, the positive feedback towards their work provides these youth the opportunity to build a positive self-image, and they know that it affords them alternative ways of expressing themselves in a more socially acceptable manner. It is a good example of the positive results Graffiti Gallery has been committing to generate for the community.

According to the website of Graffiti Gallery, Graffiti Art Programming Inc. is better known as G.A.P. or "the gallery". It is a nonprofit community youth art center located at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Gomez Street of Winnipeg, using art as a tool for community, social, economic and individual growth. It is the only one of its kind in North America for artists between the ages of 8 and 28 (and some who are a little older). The gallery is dedicated to free art lessons to high-risk youth in the community who cannot afford high tuitions and supply costs, fostering a sense of creative cooperation and self-healing. It also serves as an entry point to further education and employment. It constantly strives towards establishing a strong connection between these high-risk youth and their community.

The Gallery operates two main community programs free of charge: St.Art Program (to address several issues within the immediately surrounding community, including the lack of educational options for youth, the lack of funding to schools and other organizations for the arts and the issue of community improvement/beautification), and Urban Canvas Program (a career skills career development training program for young artists, six young artists at one time that they train and also give them commercial art experiences and help them with their art work). It also provides various after school programs free of charge, such as Art Class, Computer Club, Photography Club and DJ/MC Class. Youth can drop in at any time to work on art in a safe environment, receive introduction lessons to computers, and learn the fine art of photography from shutter speeds. These workshops have proven to be a valuable community resource. "Many of our youth have been with us for several years since the age of 5 or 8", said Dawn, an organizer at the opening reception, "at first they would come to the gallery for free juice and snacks after school, which could be the only meal some of them get a day. And then they learned that the gallery also affords them the opportunity to be shown that they are special, talented and appreciated that their hard work and efforts can be rewarded with public celebration. Nowhere else are these young people afforded the opportunity and the space, assistance, equipment, etc. that they would need to practice their art at no cost to them".

The Gallery was originally a for-profit gallery. The executive director, Steve Wilson, opened the gallery at this building on Higgins Avenue, which was an old abandoned pickle factory. Soon he noticed that there are quite a few street high-risk youth within the community visit and stay at the gallery on regular basis. "There is nowhere else they would prefer go, not their problem homes, fighting families or streets. At an early age they were being attacked by their community, physically or mentally. They try to get away from their community that abuse them, and look for the connection they can hang onto - our gallery is the place - they stay at our gallery on regular basis", said Dawn. "Then we realized it is a community problem that we could probably solve, we started the nonprofit programs ever since. It was not planned originally, but has been progressing and improving the goal and quality of the life for youth in this community gradually. We helped some youth got out of their problem families or abusing relationships, we try to help young people reconnect with their community not only the geographical area in which they live, but also family and friends in their lives".

"However, it is becoming more of a challenge to keep them interested, participating and learning. A youth artist abandoned his part for the indoor graffiti of this exhibition that he had been working on, and gone for three weeks. We needed to find another artist to continue his work. There were several similar cases before, too. It is a challenge, but we will not give up and will keep on working. We hope that through the positive influence to the high-risk youth of this generation in the community, hopefully some years later they will start living a better and more meaning life, and their children will live a even better life and continue generation after generation". "Change begins with developing their self-esteem through a combination of education and real life experiences. When the right combination can be offered to each individual, under the guidance and mentorship of caring adults and experienced artists, then what follows is a well-adjusted youth. Unfortunately, too many times the youth of our area are given a taste of programming and services, only to be denied a consistent, ongoing supply of such programming and services due to funding constraints". "The uniqueness of the Winnipeg Graffiti Gallery continues to generate a great deal of attention nationally. Graffiti Gallery proved that art is a powerful tool for community development, social change and individual growth. We did counter some resistance in parts of the business community, but at the same time quite a few public organizations and private companies have been supporting our work, we still need more funding as we expanding".

Recognizing that illegal graffiti is a problem, The Gallery has been active in developing and implementing strategies to address this issue through community building and area beautification. According to the gallery website, Graffiti Gallery has afforded the opportunity over the years for thousands of students, through their schools, daycares, organizations, etc. to tour the facility and gain a greater understanding of the "art of graffiti" and how to take it "off the streets". Many of their works are on display on the outer wall of the gallery. Each of the groups has left with a sense of pride in their art, many returning over and over again as a result of their positive experiences. Graffiti Gallery has been doing a good job for community improvement and beatification.

I lived in Asia, lived in Europe, but when I first came to Winnipeg, I was attracted by the beauty of graffiti art all over the city, outdoors on stores, schools and stadiums. I was amazed by how fine they were and how they added value to the character and beauty of Winnipeg. No wonder Winnipeg is named "the cultural cradle and city of art" in Canada. I visited a few galleries in Winnipeg, but still think the graffiti work all over the city is more attractive. Sometimes we see graffiti art in places where you'd least expect such as traffic light camera poles in St. Boniface, garage doors of houses in Kildonan and benches in various parks.

While appreciating the beauty of Winnipeg outdoor graffiti art, I appreciate more of the amazing job the Winnipeg Graffiti Gallery has been affording for their community. Graffiti work is seen in the streets in Asia and Europe, too, but yesterday I learned more about the graffiti art in Winnipeg on the reception. It was the first time I learned that there is a gallery in this corner of the world has been trying to change the lives of high-risk youth in the community. It added more value to the character and beauty of the city of Winnipeg.

"70% of the sales revenue goes to the artists, the gallery only has 30% to subsidies their budget". These young artists then realize that "I can do other things besides breaking the law, I can get attention in a positive way through my art". The community appreciates the time these youth devote to create the beauty, too. The artists then realize that they are being accepted and respected by the community was attacking them or being attacked. It is a positive experience for both the artists and the community. Now the high-risk youth can go back to the community with skills and can give something back to their community heal through the form of public art.

Again, the amazing job Graffiti Gallery has been committing to added more value to the character and beauty of the graffiti art in Winnipeg. Knowing this, I am more attracted to the colourful Graffiti art in Winnipeg, and will also afford assistance whenever possible to change people's lives.

It was a successful tenth anniversary celebration, about 150 people with a wide range a background participated, and a member of the parliament also attended to congratulate. Seeing the smiling faces around, it proved how successful the Graffiti Gallery has been for the public. I like Graffiti Gallery, and I like the graffiti work in the city of art, Winnipeg.

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