An Outlet for Expression: New arts organization focuses on Newtown youth

Like most movements, Youth Artists Network started with a group of teenagers who wanted to make a difference.

Founder and Artistic Director Maureik Robison developed the idea with friends Mia Redding and Quayshaun Oliver over several lunch periods and passionate before-class discussions during their time in the performing arts program at Booker High School seven years ago.

“I think the arts are conditional in Sarasota,” Robison says of their reasoning. “I don’t think there’s a platform for black artists.”

Back then, YAN was just a vision, and the goal was to create a network to connect and support young artists of color in Sarasota.

Youth Artists Network Ambassador Teithis Miller is an aspiring photographer who specializes in portrait shots of Newtown residents. Photo by Teithis Miller

Fast forward seven years, and Robison is sitting in North Sarasota Public Library wearing a burgundy hat with the YAN logo. He recently finished his second year teaching fourth grade at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, and he just opened a small-business bank account for his organization that’s finally becoming a reality.

Teithis Miller, one of the five youth ambassadors for the program, crouches on the floor to snap photos of our interview. He’s dressed to the nines in a navy suit and collared shirt, and his movements are so quiet and graceful, it’s easy to forget he’s there.

But when he looks up from his lens, he makes his presence known.

“This has an impact,” he says. “It influences kids to follow their dreams and go for something that they’re really passionate about.”

The vision statement for YAN appears simple: “Providing enrichment opportunities for students and creating artistic spaces for them to interact with each other.” But there are several layers to it. As Robison says, this is only the beginning — he finalized the paperwork on April 4.

Through YAN, professional, amateur and student artists will come together through monthly (and eventually weekly) meetings and events to support and inspire each other in their artistic endeavors. For artists like Miller, it’s a chance to be guided by experienced artists from their community and an outlet to show or perform their original work.

But Robison wants to take that one step further.

Youth Artists Network Ambassador Teithis Miller displays much of his photography on the organization’s website and social media pages, helping him gain exposure. Photo by Teithis Miller

“In the immediate future what we’re working on is not only providing platforms for high school students but also giving them the tools so once they have the platform, they can successfully navigate it,” he says.

These “tools” could be anything from a paint brush to a DSLR camera. For Miller, a recent Booker High School grad who wants to pursue a career in photography, it’s the laptop he’s raising money for on his GoFundMe page.

Robison’s approach to gaining the funds for these tools is strategic. Being a Newtown-based organization, he says he wants to partner with individuals and organizations that want to help him uplift the community, which has been “disenfranchised and downtrodden for centuries.”

“It’s about reaching out to the right people so that things aren’t conditional,” he says. “I think that benevolence can easily be misconstrued, and it can become a tie that binds. I want to be really intentional about who I’m going to and who I expose this vision to.”

Program Director Mia Redding agrees, saying she wants to keep everything pure and honest.

Youth Artists Network Founder and Artistic Director Maureik Robison, Alisha Gaines, Cedric Hameed and Demar Pitman participate in a discussion during the film screening of “13th” on May 27. Photo by Teithis Miller

She adds that there’s an educational aspect to YAN because most African-American students aren’t taught much about the history of arts in their culture.

Just like Caucasian girls are taught the traditions of their European ancestors through ballet, she hopes to teach African-American students about the roots of their culture through art forms like West African dance.

About a dozen young people attended the group’s first community event, a film screening and panel for the documentary “13th,” on May 27 at North Sarasota Public Library.

Robison says the next event will be Aug. 4 and will be the first in a series of “nights of expression” in which high school students and local artists can show their work. It will be an open-mic style public event in which participants can sing, dance, act, recite poetry or show any other art they’ve produced. The location is to be determined, but like all YAN events, it will be around Newtown, where the organization began and where Robison wants its heart to remain.

Youth Artists Network Ambassador Teithis Miller with Founder and Artistic Director Maureik Robison — Photo by Niki Kottmann

Robison and Redding have high hopes for the future of YAN — Black History Month programming, curriculum contracts with school districts and a partnership with Sarasota Contemporary Dance, among others. But at its core, they want to help artists and non-artists in Sarasota and beyond learn to appreciate art as a form of self expression.

“I think that especially in the black community, the arts have always been at the forefront,” Robison says. “Art creates an alternative vision. It’s a very courageous and humanist act, so when you are an artist, you create that alternate vision so you can create freedom for people who are unfree — simply through changing their reality.”

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