Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 10.15.2009


Empowering Youth at DIVA

So a cop follows a young guy into a downtown establishment. What happens? 

Art appreciation.

At DIVA, where Youth Empowerment Project art has been hanging (and standing) since the Eugene Celebration, that’s the way it goes these days. Karen Olch coordinated the project and worked with a variety of young people who otherwise don’t go to a lot of galleries, and she loves to tell the story about the Eugene police officer.

Lettering by Marc Mercado

“It was the Celebration, so he was dressed almost in riot gear,” she says. “The youth went out and asked him to come in, and he looked at a piece and said, ‘YOU did this?’ and the youth said, ‘Yup!’”

Olch says it was a great moment. “The police officer saw this youth whom he had pegged as being this or that, a certain way, and he saw a new side. And the youth realized a whole new side was being seen.”

But the project covers more than one moment. With funding from the Lane County Coaltion, the Lane Arts Council, Rotary (through DIVA) and others — not to mention a lot of sponsoring from DIVA — Olch set up a summer-long art experience. On Saturdays, various artists from around town came into a dedicated room at DIVA and taught everything from painting to multimedia work. On Wednesdays and Fridays, Olch held open studio times and worked one-on-one with the young artists. “At a basic level,” she says, the artists found “self-confidence, and they are starting to kick around the idea of changing their perception of themselves.”

Some of the young artists weren’t exactly used to thinking of themselves as members of the art community. Street youth and teens in detention at the Serbu Youth Campus came to learn about channeling their talents, Olch says, but the project didn’t stop there. Olch formed partnerships with Migrant Summer School and the immigrant youth group Juventud FACETA so that immigrant youth also had access to the classes and open studio times. “That the youth voices would be heard, that was my main goal,” she says. 

At the end of the summer, the show went up for the Celebration, and DIVA was a featured stop in October’s First Friday Art Walk. “Openings are kind of weird environments,” Olch says, but she says that many of the artists attended one or both of the crowded events. More than 900 people came through DIVA’s front door for the Art Walk, and most of them walked through the Youth Empowerment Project’s space.

In Olch’s opinion, the process of making art fosters its own rewards and provides exactly what the title says, empowerment. But she never intended this to be a one-off experience. Like a smaller version of Portland’s p:ear, the Youth Empowerment Project could continue to have open studio space once a week, she thinks. “I’m interested in doing one-on-one mentoring with youth,” she says. “You know, what are your goals? How do you want to get there? How can I help you get there?”

The show comes down Oct. 24, and Olch thinks more of Eugene should see it before then. “What I’ve heard from people and what I’m seeing in the comment book is that people are blown away,” she says. “They’re humbled and grateful by what these youth have to say.” — Suzi Steffen            

“It’s Not Just Words, It’s ART!” stays up through Saturday, Oct. 24, at DIVA, 110 W. Broadway. For more information about the Youth Empowerment Project, email Karen Olch at