Story & Photos by Camille Rasor

A nonprofit organization encourages culture and creativity to thrive in Waco

Eye-catching murals have come to be an iconic feature of life in Waco, most of them depicting both the good and bad aspects of the city’s history. Among the groups adding to the murals of Waco, and therefore its legacy, is local non-profit Creative Waco with its ARTPrenticeship program.

Creative Waco, which started in summer 2018, is a nonprofit organization with a goal to support the culture and creativity of Waco, according to their website. It is a program which allows high school students the opportunity to learn from experienced artists through the creation of a mural or two each year.

“The primary goal [of ARTPrenticeship] is [employing] young people of high school age who learn how to run a creative project from concept to completion,” said Fiona Bond, the executive director of Creative Waco. “It’s an apprenticeship and work readiness program… They learn everything from how to create a business plan, how to work with a client, how to work to a design brief, how to calculate material costs, time costs, how to manage your work site and manage health and safety issues.”

The apprenticeships are available to rising high school juniors and seniors in the Waco ISD school system. Applicants go through an extensive application process that requires work samples, a letter of recommendation from a parent or mentor and, for finalists, an in-person interview with a Creative Waco staff member.

“A lot of the time, this is the first time that they’re interviewing for a job so it teaches them what they can expect as they move forward, whether it’s interviewing for college or interviewing for just a part-time job,” said Kennedy Sam, the director of marketing and communications for Creative Waco.

The concept of ARTPrenticeship came after Bond visited Cincinnati with the Waco Chamber of Commerce. In Cincinnati, there is a similar program, Artworks Cincinnati has been operating since 1998 and has contributed to over 12,000 projects.

“For them [Cincinnati], it’s been a really successful way of raising up a whole generation of new artists in their community by teaching them the skills that are needed in order to take a project from concept to completion,” said Bond. “We put a very Waco spin on the concept, but we invited their director and their director of programs down to Waco to do a three-day intensive with us.”

A large piece of the eight-week program is deciding what the murals will depict and represent. In 2018, Will Suarez, a local graphic designer and illustrator, and a few other teaching artists collaborated to design what is now the “1,000 Hopes for Waco” mural located in downtown Waco on the stretch of Jackson Avenue between University Parks Drive and Second Street. 

The process changed for the murals designed and painted over summer 2019. At the beginning of the apprenticeship, the teaching artists and students assigned to each mural met with residents and business owners from the areas where the walls are located. During these community consultation sessions in East Waco, the young artists were able to understand the history of the neighborhoods in which they were painting and the legacy that the community wanted to leave for the people who will live and work in East Waco in the future.

“Their designs were in response to what they were hearing in the community,” Bond said about the concepts the apprentices came up with after meeting with the people of East Waco. 

Each mural had a team with a lead artist who was able to unify the visions and contributions of each individual artist. Richard C. Thomas, a celebrity artist from New Orleans, was the lead artist for the mural now located at Brotherwell Brewing at 400 E. Bridge St. It is an abstract design featuring symbols that are important to the East Waco community. 

“He’s got an absolute passion for arts and education,” Bond said. “And he really has been very influential in New Orleans at setting the agenda for apprenticeship and shepherding of young talent, and growing the African-American artistic community throughout the country.”

Thomas usually spends his summers teaching students in New Orleans through his Summer Intensive Art Camp, but even before he knew about the ARTPrenticeship program, he decided not to host his camp last summer. He was contacted by the ARTPrenticeship program after a couple from Waco saw his artwork at a jazz festival in New Orleans. His schedule happened to work well with the weeks that the apprenticeship would be taking place, so he spent his summer in Texas adding mural art to the Waco community and teaching young people how to create and complete a project of that magnitude.

“I have been successful as a teacher, which was unexpected for me to go into teaching, because I just wanted to be an artist,” Thomas said. “[…] I saw gang banging and the violence among young African-American youth, and I felt like I wanted to make a difference. And so the best way to do that is to teach and to be close to young people, to support them, and to create opportunities for them, to help them to have access to what they needed to know and understand to be successful.”

His experience growing up in New Orleans, the path he took to become the artist he is today and the people that invested in his talent as a young artist were influential in shaping how he approaches teaching art to his students.

“All I needed was a kid who’s interested, then my job is to find a way to inspire them so they’ll be lifelong learners,” Thomas said. “And then not only that, but they understand that they can make contributions to the world.”

At the Martin Luther King Jr Community Clinic at 1911 North M.L.K. Jr. Blvd., Suarez was the lead designer of the mural that features a woman with blue skin and hair in front of a colorful background facing fruit and flowers drawn in a stark black and white. 

“What I loved about both artists [Suarez and Thomas] and all the other artists that we employed this year as teaching artists is that they really wanted to bring out what the apprentices were seeing [in the community],” said Stephanie Wheat-Johnson, the ARTPrenticeship project manager for Creative Waco.

These murals now adorn the walls of their respective buildings, adding color and life to the spaces they take up. 

“We really want to generate not just colorful, interactive, interesting artwork, but really high-quality artwork that would stand on its own in a gallery anywhere in the world,” Bond said.

Another major part of ARTPrenticeship is enabling artists to make a living out of their artwork. Cade Kegerreis, one of the teaching artists hired for ARTPrenticeship for the 2018 and 2019 programs, emphasized how important that aspect of the program is, not only to the teaching artists but also to the apprentices.

“The base of this program is about supporting artists and paying artists, not expecting stuff for free,” Kegerreis said.

Wheat-Johnson echoed the importance of the financial aspect of the program. Not only is Creative Waco paying the artists who create the murals, but the artwork is created partly to develop a more attractive cultural life in the city that can therefore transform itself into opportunities for Waco’s economic growth.

“I hope we’ll be able to track maybe even an economic impact in some way,” Wheat-Johnson said.

In order to keep this program growing, there will be a need for more teaching artists in the future. Megan Major, one of the teaching artists involved in the 2018 mural, underscored that the success of this program relies on experienced artists who believe in the spirit of the program to get involved in the process.

“I would encourage some students from Baylor to apply as a teaching artist, which is really good experience,” Major said. “They’re going to need teaching artists in the future to keep the program successful.”

There is no question that the program has evolved since the beginning of the apprenticeship in 2018. During the first year of ARTPrenticeship, the apprentices and professional artists only painted one mural, but in 2019 they were able to create two. Wheat-Johnson has big ideas for the future of the program.

“One thing that really appealed to us early on in talking about ARTPrenticeship was that the format can be applied to other mediums, and I hope that’s something that will grow in the next few years because you could just as easily do music or film, dance, a play,” Wheat-Johnson said.

Wheat-Johnson’s vision for the program does not stop at the other avenues that the apprenticeships might take in the future, though. She hopes that each person involved in the program, whether it be the apprentices themselves, the teaching artists or the Creative Waco staff, takes away significant meaning from their experience with ARTPrenticeship.

“I think the deeper thing that they learn, hopefully going through the program, is that they aren’t alone. And in fact, that as far as the community and so on at large is concerned, there are wonderful things for them to get involved with right here,” Wheat-Johnson said.

The students who are involved in the program have expressed that their time in the apprenticeship has added to their understanding of their own self-worth. Bond specifically recalled an apprentice making a comment that the time she spent working with other artists on this project made her feel like she had finally found people who really understood her.

“This was the first time she ever felt like she was truly understood and surrounded by people who got her creativity and thought of it as a positive,” Bond said.

The heart of ARTPrenticeship is to create an opportunity for young artists to not only grow in the craft, but also to recognize the importance of their creativity in every aspect of their lives. 

“We want to cultivate young people who see how important creativity is as a transferable skill to anything that they end up doing,” Bond said.

Throughout their time in the program, the team at Creative Waco hopes the apprentices found a place that taught them something about themselves and the legacy that they can leave in their community.

“I hope that they leave maybe knowing something better about themselves, which is what art is hopefully about, what that creative process is: gaining insight into yourself and who you are, where you make meaning in the world,” Wheat-Johnson said.