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SCI-EN Early Action: Semilla Arts Initiative

April 20, 2011

McKinley Elementary students visit Betsy Casañas' gallery on Norris Square.

The school day is over, so McKinley Elementary fourth graders Hector Ortiz and Sabriyaha Graham could be at home, playing video games or maybe hanging out on the sidewalk.

Instead, Ortiz, Graham and about a dozen of their classmates are in an art gallery on Norris Square, snapping cell phone photos of the exhibits before moving into a back room to resume work on their own pieces of art, under the watchful eye of Betsy Casañas, an arts educator and activist who runs the Semilla Arts Initiative.

Three times a week, students from McKinley and other Philadelphia schools descend on Casañas’ gallery, not just for lessons in art appreciation, but for instruction in using art as a vehicle to connect with the communities they live in. With Semilla’s help, kids in Eastern North Philadelphia are creating public murals, mosaics, and, most recently, transforming vacant lots into colorful gardens adorned with sculptures and paintings.

“They’re learning how to transform the community using simple approaches,” says Casañas. “They’re learning to take care of the neighborhood. They’re learning how to become responsible citizens.”

Casañas and McKinley Elementary students examine works of art destined for a new community garden in Eastern North.

By necessity, Casañas has figured out how to do a lot with a little. Her projects are typically completed on a shoestring budget, or – just as often – no budget at all.

This month, though, Semilla Arts Initiative was announced as one of four recipients of a $5,000 LISC-funded micro-grant to people and organizations serving Eastern North Philadelphia. Casañas plans to use the money to buy tools and equipment for the installations she and neighborhood children create together, supplies that will help not just on one project but on many.

The next Semilla project is a vacant lot across the street from McKinley Elementary, which this spring will be transformed into a vegetable garden that doubles as an outdoor art exhibit. A few years ago, Semilla created its first community garden at 4th and Somerset, which was then a popular drug corner. Drugs are still a problem, and the garden is marred from time to time by graffiti. But the garden remains a community bright spot, with raised planting beds, vibrantly painted fences and sculpture.

The aesthetic will be similar at the lot near the McKinley school: bright colors and simple shapes, representative of the “innocence” of the kids, Casañas said.

“It’s got all this graffiti. A bunch of trash. We’re going to clean it up,” said Hector Ortiz, 10. “I guess we’ll plant carrots. Stuff like that.”

A children's garden at 4th and Somerset.

Semilla Arts wants to get as many children from the school involved as possible: younger kids sketch outlines for the installations, older kids paint and plant.

“It is very simple, but it teaches them how easy it is to create change, how powerful their voices can be as children,” Casañas said.

In addition to the Semilla Arts Initiative grant, LISC and its partner APM awarded early action grants to:

  • Ceiba, to fund free tax preparation for low income residents.
  • The 1500 block of N. 6th Street, for community-led block beautification efforts.
  • The Village of Arts and Humanities, for a youth arts project.
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