December 23, 2019 Category: Stories

At Camp Junior, Art Creates Community

Growing up in the Bronx, Lance Johnson had always heard of The Fresh Air Fund’s camps, but he’d never been to one. It wasn’t until just this past summer that Lance, now a successful visual artist and the father of a 13-year-old himself, had his first Fresh Air Fund camp experience.

This summer, he went to The Fresh Air Fund’s Camp Junior with a purpose.

“I was so profoundly hurt by the story of Junior Guzman-Feliz,” Lance says. “When I heard that The Fresh Air Fund was creating Camp Junior, I had to be involved. I knew the power of kids getting away from their environment. Seeing something new is important. I thought my art could reflect that for them as well.”

When Lance stepped into the art studio waiting at Camp Junior, opened this year in memory of Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz, a 15-year-old victim of gang violence in the Bronx, inside the studio was a blank white wall.

Blank, at least, until the campers followed Lance inside.

Safe Space

At Camp Junior – established in a partnership between The Fresh Air Fund, New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission – campers participate in activities such as hiking, swimming and archery. The camp’s programming also emphasizes opportunities for developing important skills in communication, relationship-building, empathy, conflict resolution and problem-solving.

“Social and emotional learning is something that makes Camp Junior unique,” says Camp Junior director Ricky Cruz. “We want to teach kids how to manage their emotions. A lot of issues can be resolved with communication – it doesn’t have to result in violence.”

Lance wanted to show campers their emotions – even and especially difficult ones – can result in art.

A work of art designed by one Camp Junior camper

“Whenever you feel frustrated, there’s always opportunities here to just put it on paper,” Lance says. “Whatever you’re feeling, however you’re feeling, you can throw paint at a canvas or throw paint at a piece of paper and just express yourself through that.”

“My whole hope,” he says, “was to plant seeds in the campers and give them an alternative to just being angry. Like, ‘If you’re angry, just pick up a pen, pick up a pencil, pick up a marker. Write it on the canvas.’ There are alternatives to fighting. You can express yourself in other ways.”

And the seed has been planted in many campers like Christopher, 9, who said, “I can express myself at camp. I like to draw too. I feel like art class is my home. I really like Lance, and I like that he always says, ‘You can fix mistakes and turn them into something new.’”

Freedom in Expression

At first, Lance says, many of the kids at Camp Junior said they didn’t make art, that they weren’t into it, that it wasn’t their thing.

But Lance knew that sometimes kids need an example. After all, he did.

He started making art when he was 14 with collages inspired by the work of Romare Bearden, who was featured in a documentary about the 1920s Harlem Renaissance cultural movement that Lance’s mom had shown him. But he kept his work a secret.

“Even my family didn’t know I was doing these things,” Lance says. “I didn’t have the confidence to show them, so I would tuck them away, and then I just stopped. Years later, I was back at my mom’s house, going through some papers, and I saw one. And it reminded me of how good it felt to do these things.”

He began making collages again, first on a small scale, and not in secret. He started showing some pieces in group shows around New York. And then his scale got bigger. He began incorporating words, using walls, inspired by street art and his own desire to flip graffiti’s negative connotation toward something positive. Something beautiful. Something he himself hadn’t always been sure was his thing.

“For me especially,” Lance says, “art brought me to places I never thought I would be in a million years. I want kids to see that art can open up possibilities beyond where they are. I want them to see that it’s possible to be an artist, even if you can’t see it when you’re in school, whether you’re in school or not. You can still create outside of that.”

Lance observes campers working together on an art project

So Lance encouraged even the most skeptical campers to create “selfies” without their faces but rather images, colors and words representing their identities. The kids spray-painted a special bench and rocks around the camp. They collaborated on a homage to Junior in the camp’s performance area. And that white wall in the art studio? They covered it.

“Whenever the kids would come in, I would have them add paint or their names to the wall,” Lance says. “At the end of the summer, that wall became a huge mural – colorful, inspirational. It became a legacy piece for our campers.”

It’s a legacy, Lance says, that shows what you can find when you look beyond what you know.

“A lot of the kids told me that they had never seen an artist working,” Lance says, “and when I showed them my work and showed them the things that I was doing, it gave them the possibility that they could do it as well. Art represents freedom. And it’s the perfect way to express yourself. Even when you’re stressed or you need to relax, art can provide that. Especially for kids who feel the pressures of living in the city, it is an outlet for them to be able to express themselves without limits. Art is about the process, and the process can be so freeing to your spirit.”

Help kids growing up in the Bronx build a positive community where they can become dreamers, artists and leaders. Make a donation to Camp Junior and The Fresh Air Fund today.

Learn more about Lance Johnson and follow him on Instagram @lanceljart.