When Laura Davila’s fingers glide across the raised bumps of her BrailleNote, she’s in her own world. An avid reader and award-winning poet, she carries the device with her everywhere just in case inspiration strikes. “Maybe if you narrow down your focus on “Snow Queen,” at the core what you want it to say about relationships, that might help you figure out which direction you want it to go,” Luis Pichardo says to Laura Davila, 19 at a back table in the East L.A. Public Library.
“Do you want to try working on it right now?” he asks.
“Sounds good,” she says, and the two return to writing.
Davila is one of seven students in Pichardo’s program, DSTL Arts (Develop Skills, Transcend Limits via Arts). Pichardo, a writer, photographer and painter, mentors creative youth so they can develop their craft and become working artists.
Pichardo's counseling extends beyond the arts. Along with Davila's short story "Snow Queen," they also discuss scheduling Davila's placement test for community college.
Davila started writing “Snow Queen” after not liking “Frozen” when she went to see it last December.
After discussing the movie’s “really bad” deviations from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale with friends, Davila decided to write a version she approved of with her signature urban fantasy element. She credits her ability to get lost in her own world to her blindness.
Accommodating her blindness can be challenging. It requires lots of paperwork. She hopes to get a guide dog, but that takes time. For now, Pichardo is pushing her to file paperwork for an aide to help her with her entrance exams so she can qualify for the scholarship she needs for school.
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Pichardo can relate to students from adverse backgrounds because he’s been there himself. Having spent his childhood in a primarily immigrant community in San Diego County, he knows what it’s like to grow up without resources and have neighborhood pressures. He credits the FBI shutdown of his street’s meth lab for deterring him against joining neighborhood gangs. He also believes it, and support from his mom, helped him develop his love for art.
“When I was in high school, after my parents got divorced, art became a much more important part of my life. It helped me express myself more, and get through my days,” he said.“Not really having a person I could talk to about it, I felt isolated a lot of times. It took me a little while to feel like I could make a career as an artist.”
He wanted to be someone students from similar backgrounds could talk to. He and his fiancé, a creative writer and English teacher, developed DSTL Arts two years ago to support young artists. Fuentes is the DSTL Arts program director and handles many of the behind-the-scenes details.
“DSTL Arts is the result of me, and my cofounder's, lack of mentorship when we were young,” Pichardo said. “If we had been mentored while in high school or early in our college life, we probably would've made a conscious decision to pursue the arts as a career.”
Through the program, Pichardo provides mentorship to students interested in creative writing or the visual arts. Unlike other art nonprofits, DSTL Arts isn’t focused on cultivating art skills, but preparing students to be working artists.
The program is currently operates on a meager budget of $1,000 per year. It’s primarily supported by private donors, gifts from family and friends and the sales of Pichardo's and students' work.
According to Pichardo, student art sales have covered the cost of supplies for the past two years. DSTL Arts keeps half of the sale, and the other half goes directly to the students. The program hopes to expand by partnering with other non-profits. Recently, DSTL Arts received its 501c3 certification from the IRS, so they will be able to have larger fundraising campaigns.
Because of the program's young age and need for more funding, there is no central location. Pichardo is mobile. He mostly meets students in public places around the city.
Most Tuesdays he picks up Brian Andrade from Union Station, and they meet Ana Cristel Rivas in Little Tokyo. They find a spot like Starbucks to go over their work and go on photo walks. The two are part of the original three students in the program. The other student joined the military, but is still practicing art.
Even though the program is young, Pichardo has seen what he considers success in his students: growth.
For Rivas and Andrade, Pichardo has “Seen their work grow exponentially. They have come a very, very long way, not just in their arts practice but in their self confidence,” he said.
“In their ability to articulate their vision for their art and their vision as artists. And now we are reaching a point in their development where they are promoting their work on their own, selling their work on their own, and actually, in the case of Brian, teaching creative writing.”
One of Pichardo’s proudest moments was when Cristel Rivas had her first commissioned piece. The multimedia piece included balloons, one of her favorite things. Several creatures held balloons and instruments.
“The point is, we are all creators in a way, and we all need each other to make something big, to make something greater than just ourselves,” she said.
She has also worked several events as a photographer and is occasionally contacted by people through Instagram to do photography for them.
For Pichardo, the growth in his original mentees speaks for itself. “It’s a testament of what we’re able to do in the short amount of time we’ve been around,” he said.
Despite their successes, the students sometimes struggle to get their families to take their goals seriously. Pichardo said that for many low-income families, the arts are appreciated as an activity, but aren’t seen as a viable career option.
“My parents just see it as a hobby,” said Andrade, 19, who is from Los Angeles. “They see it as something that keeps me busy, keeps me out of trouble. I’ve always told them that its something I want to pursue, and they sort of listen, but they don’t take it seriously.”
He said his parents switch from job to job and want him to become something more culturally esteemed, like a lawyer. Instead he's in college studying journalism and creative writing at California State University, Northridge.
For Cristel Rivas, 20, who is also from L.A. and studies at Pasadena City College, wanting to be an artist is hard because her family wants her to be happy, but they are mostly headed toward the medical field. “My sister is studying to be a psychologist, and my brother wants to be a pediatrician, so that leaves me wanting to be a photographer,” she said.
Her dad’s a mechanic and wants her to be happy, but also to make a lot of money. “Every time my dad asks me, ‘What do you want to be? What exactly are you doing with your life?’ I tell him, ‘I’m doing something right now. I’m trying to sell my artwork,’” she said.
“He just doesn’t understand that because he doesn’t know art, he doesn’t really like art. I’m the one that’s trying to open his eyes and show him that it is something that I’m passionate about and I’m actually making a living of it.”
The cultural dissonance led Pichardo and Fuentes to the development of DSTL Arts’ founding principle: to teach students how to articulate the value of art as a career.
“It’s culturally something that is misunderstood. The arts are not necessarily considered a career path, not in the same way that something like a science-related field is,” he said.
“Most of our parents aspire [to] that for us, but those aren’t necessarily the aspirations that we have.”
His vision of the program is to create a career path for the students. “We [believe in] not just giving them the ability to display and sell their work through our programs, but teaching them the way to go to school to get a bachelor’s degree or MFA in the arts if that’s what they want,” he said.
“The arts are really everywhere in our society, it’s just in how it’s presented. That’s what we’re teaching our students: to be aware, to pick up on these things.”
According to a 2011 report from the Americans for the Arts National Arts Index, there has been an increase of professional artists in the workforce. From 1996 to 2009, the number of working artists increased 17 percent, from 1.9 to 2.2 million. Pichardo knows firsthand: working as an artist can be done.
After the owner loved her first commissioned piece, Cristel Rivas knows it, too.
“It made me feel like there’s a reason for doing art. A reason to continue because someone believes in me,” she said.
“Someone is paying me to do something that I love. It’s a really good feeling.”