You Can Always Talk to the Canvas

The Performers Academy gives students an outlet to create and cope. 

The Performers Academy (TPA) is gearing up for a new school year and hoping to fill its enrollment roster for an after school program after coming off a whirlwind July. To start, they held the TPA Mural Festival to kick off the 10th anniversary of Camp Just Like Me, a three-week summer intensive that uses art as a tool for behavioral intervention for foster youth. Over the last 10 years the camp has served more than 500 Jacksonville teens in what has become the longest running partnership with Family Support Services. The camp has given students an opportunity to immerse themselves in various artistic disciplines offered by TPA.

“My biggest hope for these kids is that they can see how they matter so much in a world full of things that make you feel insignificant,” said TPA Executive Director Ebony Payne-English. 

At the end of the camp the teens performed an exhibition showcase at The Florida Theatre on July 29 in front of a packed house. A closing event was initiated by the students who participated in the first Camp Just Like Me 10 years ago.

“In that first camp so many of the kids were so excited about the poetry they’d written, the songs they’d written, [and] the accomplishments they had that they wanted to get on stage,” said Kathryn McAvoy, founder of TPA and board chair. “So when you think in 10 years we went from no performance to performing at the Florida Theatre is, to me, a huge accomplishment.”

When McAvoy founded TPA, it was out of her frustration and overwhelm as a busy mom of three, driving her teens all over the city to their different extracurricular activities that were grounded in the arts. 

“My goal [with TPA] was to provide all the performing arts under one roof,” McAvoy said. 

  She did that by renovating a 10,000-square-foot office building on Beach Boulevard in St. Nicholas and converting it to space for dance studios, acting studios and music studios. With the renovation complete she was able to provide a home base for the Northside Center of the Arts and Jacksonville Center of the Arts and allow children to take classes on scholarship. 

In 2011, McAvoy was approached by Brenda Stewart from Family Support Services to expand her arts school to include foster youth in what has now become TPA’s flagship program: Camp Just Like Me. 

“I can express myself through art,” said Kendal, one of the campers in this year’s program. “When I’m able to express myself with my body . . . it just makes me feel good.”

Another camper Emmanuel said, “One of the reasons why I came to Just Like Me [is] because of the art classes. Because I get to see what other kids paint and what other kids do and it can inspire me.”

For six hours a day, four days a week for three weeks, the campers took classes in lyricism, theater, recording arts, singing and songwriting, visual arts, dance, piano and guitar under the tutelage of master teachers. This year also featured a special celebrity guest, poet and singer/songwriter Tarriona “Tank” Ball of the music group Tank and the Bangas. 

During her session, Ball told campers, “Speak things, everything that you want. Speak it for yourself. But don’t speak it like, ‘I want it.’ Speak it like you have it. And give thanks like it’s already in your hands.” 

At the final showcase the students performed their original music, poems and choreography and even presented a play on what it’s like to be moved from foster home to foster home and lose contact with your foster siblings. 

“One day I came home from school. And I was with my grandma at the time. And she told me to pack my bags because we’re going into foster care,” said Destiny, who attended this year’s camp. “I feel like if I can put that into words . . . it would be telling my story but also it would be powerful enough because other kids have had to pack their bags on a whim because they’re going into foster care.”

The experience of Just Like Me Camp is as impactful for the students as it is for the teachers. Visual artist and TPA Board Member Nicole Holderbaum is a former Camp Just Like Me master teacher. She also helped organize this year’s mural fest. 

She said, “When I had the opportunity to be a teacher there, it was really inspiring and life changing for me.”

This year’s visual arts instructor was world-renowned muralist Chris Clark. He says art is a form of therapy. 

“One of the things that I wanted to let the students know is that you can always talk to the canvas,” Clark said. “The canvas will always listen to you. The canvas won’t judge you, and it will be open to hear everything you have to say.”

Not only were students allowed to work through their emotions through art, they were able to transform an everyday item into a piece of art. With Clark’s guidance the students spray painted bicycles. Those bikes are now on display at Open Road Bicycle in Avondale and can be rented for a riding tour to view other public artwork in the city. 

While Camp Just Like Me is TPA’s flagship program and it fulfills their core mission to help youth find healthy coping mechanisms through art, the executive director and the board (which this author is a member of) believe it can do more to impact all youth across Jacksonville, especially teens in crisis. 

“My biggest ambition is to fill all 30 seats on our roster for the fall,” said Payne-English. “I would like some of those seats to be taken up by kids attending Mattie V. [Rutherford] and Grand Park [alternative schools], if not most of them.”

For some, these two schools are their last stop before they enter into the juvenile justice system. Students who attend them are not allowed to go on field trips or participate in extracurricular activities, nor do they have access to arts programming during the school day. 

“Arts are coming out of the schools,” McAvoy said. “And there’s tons of research about how important the arts are for mental health, and that we’re in a mental health crisis, and that programs like this need to continue.”

A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information found “creative engagement can decrease anxiety, stress and mood disturbances.” It also noted that “creative engagement contributes to many aspects of physiological and psychological conditions typically associated with improved health status.”

With the TPA curriculum grounded in federal government research, the group is working to bring their art programming to students who need it most with the help of City Council Vice President Terrance Freeman. 

“We’ve tried this now for many years to get Duval County Public Schools to help us with transportation,” McAvoy said. 

JTA donated a bus to TPA five years ago. Since then the group has been working to get students bussed directly to the St. Nicholas facility, a challenge that’s persisted due to city bureaucracy stalling the approval. 

“If we could get the school board and Jackie Simmons to agree with us, then we would be able to provide free programming to those kids,” McAvoy said. 

Jackie Simmons Jr. is the executive director of discipline and student support for DCPS. He has to approve any plan that would authorize TPA to bus students to the facility or for TPA’s staff to go into Mattie V. Rutherford and Grand Park directly and offer instruction. Until TPA receives that approval, they will continue to do the work they’ve always done on their campus and off site. 

  “We’ve gone to Job Corps, and we’ve gone to River Oaks recovery school . . . and we’ve gone into the detention center,” McAvoy said. “[But] our campus is such an incredible facility that we really like to bring the kids there, and it’s set up [to] have a real recording studio and a real dance floor. Those sorts of things are advantageous.”

Payne-English said, “Until you put yourself—Just Like Me—into the shoes of our youth for a day or hour, then you really don’t understand why it’s so necessary and so needed.”

Enrollment is currently open for the fall after-school program known as Squad Goals. The program is open for all teens in Jacksonville and is free. 

About Nikesha Elise Williams