A Light in the Dark

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SPARKS Digital Media Arts Lab Connects Disadvantaged Youth with Technology and Art

Riverviews Artspace recently became home to a groundbreaking new digital media arts lab called SPARKS. In collaboration with the George Mason University School of Art, SPARKS offers contemporary creative arts and technology workshops to socioeconomically disadvantaged young people in and around Lynchburg.

Kim Soerensen

Kim Soerensen, Executive Director of Riverviews

Kim Soerensen, Executive Director of Riverviews, was inspired to start SPARKS when she realized that many of her daughter’s classmates don’t have the same access to technology that her daughter enjoys.

“My daughter is an eighth grader at Dunbar Middle School, which is located in one of the poorest zip codes in Virginia,” she says. “She has access at home to all modern digital technology, but most of her friends, who live in this zip code, do not due to socioeconomic circumstances. Although these young people are keenly interested in the medium, modern digital media technology is not readily available to them at school or at home. This discrepancy denies youth and young adults the opportunity to obtain valuable skills enabling them to be more competitive in the employment market.”

In addition to working toward bridging this technology gap, SPARKS also strives to connect young people to the arts, specifically digital media arts. “The arts are the second largest global economy, with digital media arts being the number one driver,” Soerensen notes. “Engaging the arts to provide solutions to system-level problems like poverty will create equitable futures for youth and foster a sustainable structure for growth of the SPARKS program and its participants.”

Soerensen believes that Riverviews Artspace is the ideal home for SPARKS in terms of both logistics and Riverviews’ overarching mission. “Riverviews is ideal because it’s within walking distance of some of the possible students, but most of all it is ideal because Riverviews is a contemporary arts institution,” she says. “We are on the forefront of using the arts to address and engage in contemporary social challenges. The arts have always been at the forefront of the social movement to address societal and community issues, even if they aren’t recognized for it. Look at Picasso’s anti-war stance, John Lennon, or the entire graffiti culture. We have the tools to be part of the solution to challenges society often does not know how to address.”

A pilot program held at the end of April identified ideal candidates for SPARKS.

Brian Chad Starks, PhD, Founder and CEO of BCS and Associates, Inc., helped lead the program. “Dr. Starks has a program with high school students from underserved communities whom he engages with every Saturday morning to provide experiences they would otherwise not have,” Soerensen says. “These young people had the opportunity to experiment in our lab. While for some it was not of interest, we were able to quickly identify who was interested and who had the aptitude to participate. These selected teenagers, from there on forward, will have classes and projects every Saturday, transportation provided by Dr. Stark’s team if needed.”

SPARKS plans to offer workshops on such topics as digital imaging, motion capture, multimedia, computer animation, and film production. Knowledge in these fields can lead to internships and employment opportunities in technical illustration, artistic production, exhibition, broadcast, and game design. Marketing and media firm Blackwater Branding will provide internships to SPARKS graduates, and Soerensen is also hopeful that graduates will be eligible for occupations beyond minimum wage work.

“Digital literacy is needed in almost any aspect of a career with growth potential and to make a living wage now and especially in the future,” Soerensen says. “Skills obtained through SPARKS will enable underserved youth to break the perpetual cycle of poverty by obtaining better quality, higher-paying careers after high school.”

Digital Media Arts Lab: The lab has storage boxes and bowls for each student that contain tech gear, headphones and educational equipment.

Grants and community partnerships play and will continue to play a central role in SPARKS’ operation. A $7,800 Best Buy grant and a $6,600 ELRO Foundation grant have secured most of the lab’s equipment. “We do not have all the equipment yet that we hope to have, but we have basic equipment that represents the equivalent to an ad agency, graphic design work studio, and basic film/music editing and sound score systems,” Soerensen notes. “We hope a few more grants will come through so we can truly build a lab that is fully functional as a studio to be rented out to professionals who need the technology for specific projects.”

In addition to renting out studio space to generate funds for the lab, the SPARKS team also plans to organize annual fund drives and offer workshops with fees to the public.

“We will offer workshops anyone can participate in to learn more about the basics of animation, Photoshop, and other tools of digital art,” Soerensen says. “One perfect example: Every Apple Mac comes with GarageBand and a basic film editing tool. Do you know how to utilize yours? Well, we will offer workshops for that.”

George Mason University will lead many of these advanced workshops several times a year. Edgar Endress, Associate Professor and head of the digital media arts program at GMU, has been a key player in SPARKS’ development from the beginning. “I have been friends with Edgar for about 15 years, and I have visited the university several times to review equipment and receive his guidance,” Soerensen says. “He has also visited Riverviews many times and brought students to discuss and develop a plan.”

SPARKS is still seeking additional digital artists who would like to teach workshops, as well as additional businesses and schools that may be interested in collaborating with the lab.

Soerensen has several specific goals for SPARKS in the future.

“I hope we will have animation and gaming festivals, offering patrons a chance to see the results of our lab,” she says.

“My secret hope and passion is to offer projection mapping, the hottest trend in the arts industry. I would love to see projection mapping and light art festivals right here in Lynchburg and to become the hub of it on a national basis. Why not dream big?

It would provide major, well-paid employment and Riverviews would be the creative cradle of it and perhaps become self-sustainable too.”

Regardless of the particular path SPARKS paves, its very existence casts a bright light on a problem that is too often ignored and simultaneously offers an innovative solution. “We have an opportunity right now to really change how our culture values the arts and economy by collaboratively engaging in the fight against poverty in a new way,” Soerensen says. “Arts are often seen as a frivolous hobby rather than an investment into a dividend-providing sector. This must change.”

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