Boston's stories of justice, hope and resilience

The Scope

Boston's stories of justice, hope and resilience

The Scope

Boston's stories of justice, hope and resilience

The Scope

The Eliot School’s ‘Teen Bridge’ program welcomes the next generation of Boston’s artists

The Jamaica Plain-based program offers young, aspiring artists opportunities to refine their skills and break into the industry – opportunities they often have trouble finding.
Courtesy of The Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts.

The Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts’ Teen Bridge program will welcome its cohort of 15 students this spring – its largest group since the project began eight years ago. 

Jamaica Plain, where the Eliot School is located, is a community known for its emphasis on the arts. Here, many local organizations and advocacy groups strive to support cultural projects throughout the neighborhood. Teen Bridge, one of the Eliot School’s many art education programs, is one of the neighborhood’s most notable efforts towards that goal.  

Started in 2016, Teen Bridge was spun off from the school’s art teacher program, which sent educators to Boston’s public schools. Now, Teen Bridge has evolved into a pathway for students to pursue a career or hobby in the arts. Through the program, students who may not be able to find dedicated art programs at their own schools can join the Eliot School and learn there. 

The Teen Bridge curriculum involves foundational artistic and language expertise paired with basic life skills such as financial literacy. The students attend classes in their free time, and the Eliot School offers a range of different creative outlets to put their lessons into practice. The teens can choose to learn from experts in woodworking, painting and portraiture, among many other arts.

“With all our students, especially our teens, creativity opens the door for so many things that they can do,” said Marjorie Saintil-Belizaire, the director of youth engagement at the Eliot School and longtime arts teacher. “We want to offer arts equity to everyone.”

The incoming 2024 cohort is the largest one yet at 15 students. While the latest group of kids have not yet started their Teen Bridge experience, former members of the program feel that the experience was vital in helping them discover and develop their artistic skills

“I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember, but I had never taken an art class in my life,”  said Elian Feliz,19, a former student of Teen Bridge who was 17 when he attended the program. Now, he is a freshman at Massachusetts College of Arts and Design. “Teen Bridge helped me get these skills and knowledge that I needed to improve.” 

Feliz wants to become an art teacher. Teen Bridge offered the first step to that career: an entry-level job.

Feliz, third from the right, and his Teen Bridge colleagues. (Photo: JayPixWorx)

“Afterward, (the Eliot School) gave me an opportunity to work there as a teaching assistant,” Feliz said. “They gave me connections and helped on my portfolio that got me to where I am now.”

Isaac Madera joined the program when he was 15. His school didn’t have an art program. Like many public schools in Boston, there was not an ample opportunity to foster students’ artistic drivers. He wanted to create but had no outlet to do so.

“The arts have meant so much to me my entire life,” Madera said. Taking classes at the Eliot School on the weekends, Madera could devote time to his sketches – a simple hobby he did not previously have the dedicated time to pursue.

Now, at 21-years-old he is a junior pursuing an arts degree at UMass Boston. At the Eliot School, Madera says he found a group-oriented community where he was free to take charge in certain activities and learn from his peers in others.

“The sense of community there was really awesome,” Madera recalled. “I’m still a part of the school, and it was great to enter into an art community so early.”

Feliz and Madera both credit their success to the support of one teacher. Camila Bohan Insaurralde, the youth programs coordinator at the Eliot School, has spent six years working on the Teen Bridge program. A longtime youth development worker, Insaurralde has been a patron of the arts since her middle school days.

“As someone who grew up in youth development programs, I became who I am as a person in these systems,” Insaurralde said. She has expanded the Teen Bridge program from a four-person class to one of the largest arms of the Eliot School.

Insaurralde, who is also a part-time worker at the School for the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, has shepherded dozens of youth into the arts community.

“A lot of people don’t see this as a pathway they can take,” Insaurralde said. “I talk to them and their families and show them how their passions can sustain them.” 

Throughout her career, she recalls encounters with several children afraid to attend art school and unsure about working in the arts. Insaurralde’s work aims to change that.

“Now many of those kids have grown up in our programs, work for us and are in art schools.”

But there is always room for growth. While the Teen Bridge scheme has guided many young people into the arts, Insaurralde envisions a program where foundational art skills and career guidance can be split up by grade level.

“In past cohorts, we’ve had eighth graders through [high school] seniors,” Insaurralde said. With those age gaps, tailoring the programs to meet every individual’s needs can be difficult. “I hope we can soon get more days for these programs and more opportunities for the kids to connect and interact.”

For over 300 years, the Eliot School has been a staple of its neighborhood. Inviting young people from across Boston and giving them a unique opportunity to forge their own careers in the arts, the school embodies the community-driven culture of Jamaica Plain. 

Professionals like Insaurralde and Saintil-Belizaire have given students like Feliz and Madera a chance to follow their passions and serve their communities. The newest cohort of the Teen Bridge program is another step in integrating the next generation of artists with their neighborhoods.

“I feel like we’ve connected young people to new ways of making things,” Insaurralde said. “There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing the youth live their truths.”

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