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Philadelphia’s Fleisher Art Memorial in national spotlight for work with kids

The director of the Fleisher Art Memorial and a South Philly teenager will be at the White House Wednesday as the guests of Michelle Obama. The first lady will honor the Fleisher and 11 other programs around the country for their work with young people.

Sixteen-year-old Zulmarie Nozario, who has been coming to Fleisher’s after-school Teen Lounge since it began three years ago, will accept the award in Washington. Between heavy loads of homework, college applications, and preparing for the SAT, the high school junior goes to Fleisher every Wednesday afternoon, without fail.

“I come every Wednesday because it’s my only alone time,” said Zulmarie. “I relax, learn art, express how I feel. I don’t feel judged. I feel comfortable in this place.”

The Teen Lounge is one of the youth programs at Fleisher, along with Saturday classes and on-site classroom programs in area schools.

“We have programming for young people on Saturdays for kids 5 to 18 years old,” said Magda Martinez, programming director. “We found that once people got to be 12 or 13, and their parents can’t make them come anymore, the classes got smaller.”

The Teen Lounge is a drop-in program, with no class registration and no expectation of attendance. Kids come when they want to do whatever is happening that day.

Atiba Ingram, 15, travels from West Philadelphia to be at the Teen Lounge every week. She is interested in photography and sculpture, but refuses to draw.

“Drawing a face isn’t just a circle for a face with two small dots for eyes,” said Atiba. “It takes different techniques, and I cannot do that for the life of me.”

At the Teen Lounge, the young adults are also able to act as administrators of their own program. Artists are invited to submit proposals for month-long residency projects, which the teenagers read, review, and vote on.

It tends to weed out confounding “art speak” language from artist statements.

“At first people didn’t grasp what that meant–or didn’t believe us,” said Martinez. “Really? You’re letting them choose? They really do choose. It was helping artists understand you’re writing to teens who are going to look at your proposal, who, like adults, will make a decision how much they may enjoy spending time with you if you write this proposal.”

The Fleisher Art Memorial has been offering classes to the neighborhood around Seventh and Catherine streets for more than 100 years. This presidential award will highlight an often-overlooked side of the organization.

“Our adult programming is pretty well known,” said Martinez. “People understand it. But the intensity and volume of children programming is not understood well.”

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