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The Scene was our Illinois arts & culture podcast through 2017. Rachel Otwell curated the podcast which provided full-length stories and follow-ups, links to other reports, and conversations with you.This podcast contained a range of stories from the world of arts & culture, from visual art to Springfield's DIY music scene, to profiles of interesting local characters. The podcast was about what makes artists tick, and the diverse culture that exists within our community.

Unique Studio Helps Kids Complete Ambitious Projects

Rachel Otwell/WUIS

In northern Illinois, a new space is open for kids to complete a variety of unique creative projects. I took a visit, here’s the report:

“Project time” started at Mike Meiners' house when his two sons were nine and seven years old. Meiners wanted to foster creativity in them – and show them what they were capable of. “The first project that my older son did was ... to make a Taser."

Meiners helped his son develop and complete a project with that goal in mind, but he urged him to do the work on his own. And though he had to struggle to convince his son to complete it – it worked. Meiners says it’s the sense of pride a kid gets when accomplishing something on their own that he wanted to bring to a larger audience.

Hack Studio is in a big building in the Chicago suburb of Evanston which used to be a furniture warehouse. This is where Meiners' dreams are coming to life. “We say imagine a world where when you walk in the door that everybody is behind what you want to do. How amazing would that be? That everyone supported you. That everyone wants what you want. Well, that can happen, and it does happen here. But we have to build it.”

Meiners has over 50 kids enrolled in after school programs where they come up with a project – what they call a "quest", and work to complete it.  Multiple ladders are around as an analogy that many small steps need to be taken to get to an end goal.

Janey Matejka is a 13 year old sitting at a table drawing. She’s working on her “quest” and explains: “My drawing is of a cheetah, and that’s just part of my quest. My quest – my whole quest – is to prove to myself that I can free-hand draw. Because it’s useful for people like me to understand some concepts better.”

Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS
Mike Meiners is the founder of Hack Studio

Ellen Green is sitting with Janey and tracking her progress. She serves as her mentor. While she herself is a visual artist – Green says, “Whatever the kids need or whatever their quest is doesn’t actually rely on my expertise – because my job is not actually to teach any skills.” Green says she points Janey in the right direction and lets her know what resources are out there.

Hack Studio is all about self-directed learning. Kids get together in peer groups and talk about what they are working on for feedback and critiques. Most of the time they work on their own, with their mentors around to offer support. To get in you have to be in grades 3 thru 12, meet weekly at the same time, and be able to afford the fee of about $250 a month. Though Meiners says there are scholarships in the works.

Alayna Rickard already finished her Hack project. She was part of the first group to go through the process. I call her up after she gets to her home in Wilmette after class. “My project was to create a gender neutral clothing line, so I spent a lot time learning how to silk screen and create designs for shirts that I made.”

Alayna was inspired by her friends who don’t fit gender norms and the problems they run into while shopping. She saw a problem, and wanted to fix it. She says Hack got her into the mindset to do so. “An awesome thing is they help provide resources and they help push you when you need to be pushed. I just researched and experimented and learned from my failures, and eventually I created a project I was happy with.”

For Mike Meiners, the idea for Hack Studio was planted in his head a long time ago. He says even as a kid, he was discouraged from pursuing art as a career. He was pressured to go into something more practical: “I’m 8 years old and this what I’m looking at for the trajectory of my life – it was just not an acceptable picture for how things were going to go.” Meiners says Hack Studio is a model for making kids realize they too are capable of shaping their own futures.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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