PORTLAND — With assistance from students at Maine College of Art, a weekly writing program at The Telling Room is helping young students tell their stories in a Portland Public Library after-school program.

“It started with collaboration between the library and the Telling Room,” said Justin Hoenke, the library’s teen librarian. “We have a regular program with them every Tuesday, which is kind of like open writing hours; sometimes we do projects and others we explore writing and stories.”

For several years the library has been working with The Telling Room to put on weekly workshops, but The Telling Room was looking to allow students to participate more fully in their programs without having to travel to its studio on Commercial Street.

“Rather than asking kids to come here all the time, we wanted to go out and meet students,” said John Holdridge, The Telling Room creative director. “Knowing (the library has) 30, 40, 50 kids after school, it was a likely place. So we started doing one-shot workshops so that students didn’t have to commit to three Tuesdays or five Tuesdays.”

The Searching for Me project was born when Holdridge brought MECA’s The Art of Making Art class into the picture.

“John came in and talked to my class about all the different projects The Telling Room is working on,” said associate assistant professor Paul Gebhardt. “From there what I do is facilitate an opportunity to look at what they are doing and try to find a need.”

The class decided they wanted to work on a creative project and created the idea of silhouettes by looking at what “Searching for Me” means and finding a creative vehicle that best fits the ultimate goal of the project: allowing students to find their voices and share their stories.

The students in the program participated in a series of three workshops and had the chance to write about their identities and things that they felt passionate about.

“A lot of the kids have interesting stories about where they came from, how they got to America and how they are dealing with teenage life,” Hoenke said.

On the fist day of the workshop, the students began by writing very broadly based on the theme of The Telling Room’s yearly anthology “Searching for Maine: Searching for Me.” After they had a basic idea of what they wanted to write about, students from Gebhardt’s class helped them create silhouettes and cut them out. And on the third day they wrote their stories inside their silhouettes.

“The kids wrote about a lot of identity things; the story of their name or the things they feel passionate about,” Holdridge said. “One kid put a bunch of math facts in his because he happened to be working on math that day.”

After the students completed their projects, The Telling Room, MECA and the library held a traditional art opening so that the students could see their work on display.

“One of our missions is to give students a chance to find their voice and to find audiences, because they have a lot to say, but they aren’t often given a place to say it,” Holdridge said. “With this project students were writing about themselves in this place and time and had the chance to publicly display that.

“For a lot of these students, they never understood the concept of a gallery opening,” he continued. “There was this great moment where there was a room full of high school students, Telling Room staff, MECA students and professors all in the space together, viewing the work, having conversations – classic art opening conversations about the work and some not about the work. It was good to provide a space where significant cross-sections of this Portland community can come together, high school students, higher education students and professionals; we wanted to provide a hub for all of these people to be able to come together.”

The Searching for Me exhibit is on display in library’s Teen Room through March 1.

Amber Cronin is The Forecaster news assistant. She can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @croninamber.

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