This artist entrepreneur helps kids navigate social justice issues through creative expression
In partnership with the nonprofit IDEAS xLab, Louisville artist Shawn Wade shows young people how to start conversations on issues important to them.
This story is from a series of essays written by artists and participants in Our Emotional Wellbeing, an initiative from the Louisville nonprofit IDEAS xLab. The two-year program invites local artists to collaborate with young people ages 12-20 with the aim of harnessing art’s power to create inclusive communities where everyone can be their authentic selves. Read all the stories in the series here.
As a self-taught artist, I have always been inspired by Les Brown reciting the words of Dean Alfange: “I seek opportunity. … I want to take the calculated risk, to dream and to build, to fail and succeed.” From childhood, growing up in Black America, gay, living in poverty, and breaking generational curses, I figured the change had to start with me. So, I did just that.
Art has had a major impact on my life. It was through conquering dance and modeling in high school as an extremely introverted person that I was able to grow. It was a big confidence shift for me. As a teen dealing with acceptance and depression, sheltered from the outside world, art was all I knew. Art was my secret place!
I remember my mama always putting me up on game with her expertise, when I showed her my sketches. “Shawn, does her nose look right to you?” she asked. Adjusting my eyes at my masterpiece, “Yes, it can be better,” I said.
I appreciate the love and wisdom of both my parents—for me, it’s the small things along the way that will always resonate in my heart. After years of planting seeds, I started my own art business with the hope of becoming a full-time working artist—an Artrepreneur. Now, I can gladly say I’m the creator and artist of Artistry of a Dreamer (A.O.D), where I transform ideas into reality. As a result of my services as an artist/designer, I take my clients’ ideas from boring to BOLD, from brush to paint, from thread to needle, to completion!
I’m still in awe that I have the opportunity to share space with the young people at Meyzeek Middle School who participate in Justice League and Bates Memorial Kingdom Academy. I am thrilled to be collaborating with such an exceptional group of human beings. Working in partnership with artist Jazzy J is wonderful—she is a strong black, woman with a loving, exciting spirit! Yeah, she knows what she’s talking about.
Through our activities as a part of IDEAS xLab’s Our Emotional Wellbeing, Jazzy and I found that connecting with the young people wasn’t an issue for us. We wanted to get a better sense of who they were by sparking conversations about disparities in the school environment and challenging them to think about social justice.
After sharing some of our personal artwork with the students, including clothing I designed and paintings I did, we decided to start co-designing T-shirts as a group. We tackled different issues that were relatable to the young people—ones they had identified and put into a bucket to launch our open discussion. Breaking into three groups, the students were encouraged to think on their feet and out loud, to share opinions, take leadership roles, and being creative. They chose topics they wanted to design around. It was incredible to see and to be a part of sharing common interests through art about social justice.
In the project, we covered different topics from mental health, to depression and anxiety and “killing’’ a figure of speech, which for the young people, is a metaphor for how they feel about decisions that are made in the school. Based on the art interaction with the young people, we learned that they feel “hushed” when discussing topics that affect them—as if their voices have been killed. In our art activity, the students expressed this with a hand over an open mouth signifying their voices being silenced.
‘‘Personally, I’ve been teased and picked on when I was younger and even now. Because I am who I am. Mostly, because I choose to be kind to others,’’ said one of the students during one of the Our Emotional Wellbeing activities. As a group, they talked about how they wanted to positively impact the climate and culture of the school.
I’m honored to be working with IDEAS xLab as one of the three artists selected by the young people for this engagement. I believe our students and young people have the power to impact lives—their own life, the lives of family and friends, lives around the globe. I know that well-being is an important factor in my life and my work. Period. Because, if I’m not at my best, how can I serve the millions?
Through art, I’ve learned that when I face obstacles and challenges, I will be able to tackle them with creative solutions. And I can use my artistic practice to help students understand that they have that power as well.
I look forward to the global change of Our Emotional Wellbeing, because it’s possible!
Read more stories from IDEAS xLab on The Renewal Project.