The Karen Youth Art Group was founded over 8 years ago by Nerys Levy and Fran Hamer, who noticed the interest Karen students had in art.
Levy described Karen culture as one that is embedded in weaving, color and artistic sensibility.
“The kids, when they were in refugee camps, had very little resources except pencil and paper,” Levy said. “There were schools there but very minimal. But they did draw. Sometimes, if they didn’t have pencil and paper, they would draw on rocks.”
Levy describes the outreach group as a total immersion in the arts for the students. Through the program, the students have worked with art forms such as sketching, painting and ceramics. The students also learn discipline during the program, as they learn to prepare for a show and finish their work in time to be photographed.
Since the onset of COVID-19, the group’s leaders have been hosting their weekly meetings outdoors. Much of this time has been spent sketching and painting landscapes at the Haw River, Blackwood Farm Park and Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. Through this, the leaders wanted students to be able to explore rural areas of the community.
This outdoor setting inspired the young artists’ works, including many featured in the exhibition. Levy said the students respond well to art inspired by nature because of their culture’s roots in the Eastern Himalayas. Much of the artwork in the virtual exhibition focuses on nature landscapes.
“If you see the order of the pictures, it's almost like you're walking through the gallery,” Natalie Knox, FRANK’s gallery manager, said. “You can see it from the comfort of your home.”
The Karen Youth Art Group has done more than just support the students’ artistic endeavors. They also track the educational development of their students, assist them in enrolling in higher education and receiving financial aid and ensure that they are all fed through hunger programs.
“We have a huge responsibility to this group, not only to educate them artistically,” Levy said.
Especially during COVID-19, the Karen Youth Art Group has worked to support their students through all means.
“Nerys and Fran have really done a lot to try to keep their normal as normal as possible,” Knox said.
The FRANK Gallery is now open from 12 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays. The virtual outreach exhibition, along with more information about the group, can be found here.