Cup making turned into a solo art show. Color blocking turned into a painting project focused on mental health and anxiety. Sewing and weaving turned to making an EP, right on time for quarantine.
That’s the story for Aime Mulungula, Kaitlyn Higgins, and Mekhi Banks, all high school apprentices at NXTHVN. After the Henry Street arts hub closed due to COVID-19 in March, apprentices had to get creative with their projects. Now, they’re back in the studio, able to continue their work with the mentorship of their fellow.
Normally, high school apprentices work alongside studio and curatorial fellows in their spaces, located inside NXTHVN’s Henry Street building. During their apprenticeship, they live at the intersection of NXTHVN’s identities: gallery, studio, and office space. Like the fellows’ work, the program relies on having the apprentices onsite.
“We wanted to make sure that they continued their relationship with their fellow,” Executive Director Nico Wheadon said of the decision to have apprentices remain working over quarantine. “Because that’s such a big part of the program. We wanted to use something like Zoom and online workshops to keep them connected, and keep them working.”
“As we started to see the project ideas they were coming up with, it was clear that they were doing some awesome, radical stuff,” she added.
Left: Art, done during the program, by Kaitlyn Higgins. Right: Art by Aime Mulungula.
In March, everything changed for the organization and the apprentices. On March 12, the city announced that it would be closing public schools and moving learning online, where it remained for the remainder of the school year (there is currently a debate over whether public schools will resume with an in-person, hybrid or entirely remote model).
By then, NXTHVN had already announced that it was closing its physical doors. Each apprentice was assigned a personal project for the time they would be in quarantine.
It was not the only pivot the Dixwell gallery, studio space and incubator had to make. During the first weekend of March, NXTHVN welcomed over 400 people for its exhibition Countermythologies. By the following weekend, staff were scrambling to get the exhibition online as the gallery and offices went into lockdown and staff began working from home.
NXTHVN staff applied for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which the space ultimately secured. They also launched a $150,000 emergency relief fund, which went directly into providing increased stipends, and subsidized housing to the fellows for the remainder of the year.
Fellows, many of whom had relocated to New Haven, worked to figure out whether they would be able to access their studio spaces. And apprentices, facing a program turned on its head, looked at how their work was transforming in relative isolation.
Mulungula, a rising senior at Hill Regional Career High School, is currently working on a solo art project set to show in February. Before quarantine, he was working with artist Jeffrey Meris on cup making as an entryway into his interest in entrepreneurship. When quarantine began and he was unable to continue, Mulungula started working on his upcoming show, which works to show various forms of African culture.
Through NXTHVN he is working on receiving funding for his project, and is planning on showing it at New Haven Free Public Library’s Stetson branch. The branch is not currently open to the public, but is planning its move to the new Q House for next year, with the hopes that it will be able to show student art.
“During the process, we were able to contact our fellows on how they could best help us,” he said. “Which was the main way that we kept in contact through quarantine. We had weekly Zoom meetings on Wednesdays, which were used to help us update the other apprentices on where we were at.”
Banks (pictured at left), a rising junior at James Hillhouse High School, is working on an EP as his personal project. Before COVID-19, he was working with fellow Esteban Ramón Pérez on sewing and weaving, which is a large part of Pérez’s work.
While they weren’t able to be in person and continue with the studio work they were doing, they did take the time to communicate over the phone to share music with each other. Banks took the time as an opportunity to remaster some of his older songs.
“It wasn’t great, but it did have its benefits.” he said. “At home, I was able to work on something that I excelled in, which was music production. It was a strange transition, but it was fun in a way.”
That’s also true for New Haven Academy junior Kaitlyn Higgins, who was working with fellow Vincent Valdez. Previous to quarantine, Higgins was working on rendering and color blocking for select pieces of Valdez’s. Now, she is working on showcasing a series of paintings on mental health, focusing specifically on anxiety.
Although she’s still in the process of figuring out exactly how she wants to show her project, she plans to donate a portion of her proceeds that she receives to a mental health organization. She said the transition was a difficult one for her.
“Before quarantine, I was at NXTHVN almost 4 days a week, so it gave me something to do and focus on,” she said. “ I just love the studio so much because it just makes me feel better. So from going almost every week to not going at all was really hard. Just because it makes you lose motivation. I lost motivation to do my art, because I wasn’t doing it.”
“When I go into the studio I have an assignment, whereas when I’m home I’m free to do whatever, so I just didn’t do as much art as I wanted to,” she added.
On June 24, apprentices were allowed back into the studio with their fellows. Before this spring, many of them had been used to socializing with friends and having a constant schedule for school. That stopped abruptly with the arrival of COVID-19. Coming back into the space and interacting with their fellow apprentices has re-gifted them with some sense of their pre-COVID normalcy.
The gallery space has also reopened for NXTHVN’s newest exhibition, Pleading Freedom. The exhibition is a collection of work from artist and NXTHVN Founder Titus Kaphar and poet Reginald Dwayne Betts. Per public health guidelines, the gallery is operating at reduced capacity. Viewers who come to see the show must sign up for contact tracing.
Kaatje Welsh is a 2019 graduate of the Youth Arts Journalism Intensive and returned during a 2020 summer session. She will be a junior at New Haven Academy this year. Find out more about NXTHVN at its website.