To celebrate the Joan Mitchell Foundation's 25th anniversary, we invited 25 artists to reflect on the impact of receiving support from the Foundation over the years, and to share how they activated the resources provided by the Foundation. We collected their stories, along with studio portraits of the artists by photographer Reginald Eldridge, Jr., into an exhibition and book entitled Widening Circles: Portraits from the Joan Mitchell Foundation Artist Community at 25 Years. Here is the 11th story in our series, from Angelica Santiago:
When I was growing up, as the daughter of a low-income single mother, the Brooklyn Public Library was everything for me. One day when I was in 6th grade, I saw a flyer at the library that said the Joan Mitchell Foundation was offering free art classes on Saturdays at The Door. I was so excited because the only thing I loved to do more than reading was making art. I was 10 years old and had just started taking the subway to school by myself. It was a huge deal for me to travel to the city alone, especially for an art class. That to me was only a privilege that rich kids had.
On my first day, it was raining, and I couldn’t see the street signs because I’m nearsighted. I called the phone number on the class flyer, and José Ortiz answered to me practically in tears. He stayed on the phone and gave me step-by-step directions. I made it, and my life changed forever. I was amazed at all the materials available for us to use, and there was no pressure or judgment in that space about the level of art education one had. They shared that every week we’d do a different project to learn new art-making techniques. I was in love!
I continued going every Saturday, and over the years, José became a mentor to me, helping me understand the importance of portfolio development and guiding me through the college application process. Throughout my JMF art education, an extreme amount of real-life issues were happening around me. Every girlfriend I had in school became pregnant, my guy friends were all joining gangs, selling/doing drugs, and social media was just beginning to take form as a massive distraction. José and the jumpstART program truly kept me sane and grounded. I used the portfolio José helped me create to apply to Pratt Institute for Graphic Design/Illustration and I got selected to join the associate’s degree program.
I thought art school was going to be JMF all the time—extremely inclusive and fun, and that creativity would beam out of everyone. Unfortunately that was not my experience. I felt invisible to everyone but the security guards and custodians, and I eventually dropped out of classes. I was utterly miserable until I got the courage to reach out to José again. I was expecting him to look down upon me as a failure, but to my surprise, it was the exact opposite. He encouraged me to work with and around other young artists like myself, which created the opportunity for my passion for art-making to be reignited.
Today, as a JMF Art Education Alumni Council member, I meet regularly with other artists who are in college or on their way, in support of a vision of professional development for young artists through workshops, networking events, and exhibitions. I’m proud to say the transformation that I have experienced internally and externally with the helpful support of the Foundation is truly remarkable. Without it, my worst fear would have come true. I would be just another statistic.
Angelica Santiago draws on her Christian faith and a variety of media to examine contemporary American cultural concerns. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Read more about Widening Circles and download the full book here.
All photos © 2018 Reginald Eldridge, Jr.