Come As You Are: A Space for LGBTQ Teens and Art

Teens share their thoughts on art and what it means to create safe, celebratory spaces for LGBTQ communities.
MoMA May 31, 2019

Each week starts with a simple check in: “How are you doing today?” Going around the room, a group of teens share some insight into their days. Good, bad, or somewhere in between—they’re free to say anything they want. This is just a quick snapshot of MoMA’s Open Art Space, a free, weekly drop-in program for LGBTQ teens and their allies. Facilitated by two teaching artists, Kerry Downey and Tali Petschek, the program runs from October to April. This past year, Open Art Space focused on creating zines—handmade booklets filled with drawings, collages, stories, and other forms of expression. The project felt especially appropriate for the group since the culture of zines is rooted in resistance, a way to share alternative viewpoints apart from mainstream media. While the program centers on art and art making, that often takes a back seat to hanging out and listening to music in a space where the teens are free to be themselves.

In anticipation of World Pride, we stopped by Open Art Space to talk with the teens and program facilitators during the last session of the season, which they celebrated with a Queer Prom photoshoot, Chinese food, and brownies.

Photographs by Néstor Pérez-Molière. These interviews were edited for length and clarity.

Theo Haegele
Theo Haegele

What does art mean to you?

Theo Haegele: Art is.... God, that’s a big one. To me, art is just something you do and you say it’s art.

What role does art play in creating a safe space?

I mean art can be whatever! It’s great that it can be whatever. Because you’re the artist and all art is part of the artist. So, if art is able to be whatever, then you’re allowed to be whatever within the space of art.

I love MoMA and I’ve done a ton of programs here, like Open Art Space. It’s a sort of exchange, not just with your fellow peers, like within the group, but also with all the artists on the walls and the history. What makes a safe space? Exchange.

What are your tips for fostering a community for LGBTQ+ teens and allies?

Make a space where anything can be out there, and then it can be built upon. Don’t stop at any one thing.

It feels great to be able to show people what or who I am without even having to use words and just having to use a pencil and paper.
Nicholas Amiama-Gomez
Nicholas Amiama-Gomez
Nicholas Amiama-Gomez

What is your favorite part about Open Art Space?

Nicholas Amiama-Gomez: My favorite part about Open Art Space is the freedom that it gives people when they come here. It’s a type of freedom that they can’t even get at home. Especially if the home isn’t as accepting as the people that are here. And it allows people to express themselves through different mediums of art, and the different people that students can relate to when they come and visit. We’re allowed to have such a great time because of this type of freedom we get here.

What role does art play in creating a safe space?

Art is a way that I can not only isolate myself—because art is something that I do in a quiet place and focus—it’s also a thing I can use to show people who I am because of what I draw. And what I can show them with my art and what I can do with a pencil and paper is a way of creating a world that I can be happy in without being happy in the world that I am in right now.

What are your tips for fostering a community for LGBTQ+ teens and allies?

Gatekeeping is a main problem that keeps people not feeling safe or happy in the spaces that they go to. And gatekeeping is basically a person thinking that they have the right to tell a person that they’re not allowed to do something or to be something or to say something. And that causes a lot of non-acceptance in a community. And it makes the community look a lot worse than it really is because people think they have the authority to do such things.

What does art mean to you?

What art means to me is something that allows me to escape from the world that I’m in now. It allows me to create a place where there’s people I’d love to be, especially as a person who draws mainly characters. It’s a way that I isolate myself from the world because I could just do things on my own. I can draw something on a piece of paper and be happy with it. I can draw something that I wish I could have, or something that I wish I could be. It feels great to be able to show people what or who I am without even having to use words and just having to use a pencil and paper.

Maya Jacob
Maya Jacob

What does art mean to you?

Maya Jacob: Art means happiness and expression. It means building a community and showing somebody else who you are through a form of expression.

What role does art play in creating a safe space?

I think that art shows you that you can be creative and you can be yourself in a way. So it’s creating a safe space for you, an openness to create and to be your best self through art.

What are your tips for fostering a community for LGBTQ+ teens and allies?

I think education, and having a one-on-one conversation with people. And showing people that we can talk about whatever you have questions about and make it not scary, something that has to be stigmatized.

What is your favorite part about Open Art Space?

My favorite part of Open Art Space is having everyone sit together and eat together, laugh, enjoy music, and just be ourselves in a room together. It’s really fun to be around other people who feel the same way, who have things in common with me, and we can all just be ourselves and share ideas and stuff.

Art means happiness and expression. It means building a community and showing somebody else who you are through a form of expression.
Maya Jacob
Kelly Williams
Kelly Williams

What is your favorite part about Open Art Space?

Kelly Williams: My favorite part would be just being able to come here and have a good time with new people I’m introduced to and learning about everyone else’s situation and just knowing that we’re all here in one place experiencing everything together.

What role does art play in creating a safe space?

I feel safe around anyone I’m here with and I feel like I can be myself.

What are your tips for fostering a community for LGBTQ+ teens and allies?

I would have to say to everyone that wants to be a part, just to go into it open-minded. Let everyone know why you’re here, so that we can all talk about it and it can be an open discussion.

What does art mean to you?

Art means a lot of different things to me. I think it means just being able to express yourself verbally, physically, emotionally, with a lot of different aspects—meaning it could be in person, paper to pen, it could mean just being yourself around people.

MoMA teaching artists and program facilitators Tali Petschek (left) and Kerry Downey. Photo: Néstor Pérez-Molière
MoMA teaching artists and program facilitators Tali Petschek (left) and Kerry Downey. Photo: Néstor Pérez-Molière

What does art mean to you?

Kerry Downey: Art is this wonderful, empty, and yet totally full-of-possibilities term. Art expands the ways we can be together, of thinking and acting in new ways—it’s endlessly flexible. Art is a conduit; it’s a possibility for connection.

What is your favorite part about Open Art Space?

Open Art focuses on process over product, on being together with no pressure to produce anything good, by any standard of good. The only goodness is in how we treat each other. I love the laid-backness, and occasionally we’ll debate something, and it’ll shift that energy, but we’re creating our own guidelines. I’m responding to the participants—as the community changes, we try to respond to their changing desires and needs. It’s about listening, hanging out, and enjoying each other.

What role does art play in creating a safe space?

I think that safety is a really complicated concept. And safety is a relative concept, and in many ways, it’s a misnomer. But if safety means that we’re going to be accountable to each other and do our best to care for each other, then I’m interested in that term. But when you’re queer, it’s hard to feel completely safe, especially in this political environment, even in New York. And also if you’re queer, genderqueer, or trans, it’s hard to feel safe in your own skin. We’re hoping to produce a space that feels safer than maybe some teens feel at school or home or in the streets. I feel uncomfortable proclaiming I provide safe space, because the program is dynamic and open, changing every week. We do our best to make it as safe as possible, to make people feel good, but I also know that it’s going to be imperfect. A lot of queer folks are really examining what language to use. I’ve heard safer space, brave spaces, celebratory spaces, creative spaces, welcoming spaces. But no language is perfect and no single phrase can name the diversity of lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ teens.

What are your tips for fostering a community for LGBTQ+ teens and allies?

Instead of teachers, we need good facilitators who really listen to teens. Spaces should be as horizontal and nonhierarchical as possible, and driven by participants’ voices over the desires of any one person or institution. Creating community agreements and ways of engaging that are truly participatory. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of group, and there are certainly a lot of resources about how to do this, but at the core of all group work is fostering trust and resisting judgmentalism—inspiring curiosity and creativity over a “call-out” culture.

How does art function as a facilitator for this group?

This year, we focused on zines and DIY culture, which celebrates radical inclusivity and resistance to heteronormativity and corporate interests. Zines celebrate all small acts of creative resistance—you can make one page, you can add one word, you can just show up. Art guides us while we are talking, chilling, snacking, and listening to music.

What is it like to co-create a space for teens?

Because it is drop-in, the dynamic is really changeable and unpredictable. I find I have to go with the flow. When the energy is low and I try too hard to direct it, I’m letting my own anxieties run the ship. It’s different than a classroom, where you’re trying to guide students to achieve specific learning goals. Our goals are that participants should feel good and want to return. Our space should feel markedly different than school. If you want to talk about queer issues you can, or you don’t have to. Many of us don’t want to be solely defined as queer; we just want to just be because everywhere else we can’t.

If you’re queer, genderqueer, or trans, it’s hard to feel safe in your own skin. We’re hoping to produce a space that feels safer than maybe some teens feel at school or home or in the streets.
Kerry Downey

What does art mean to you?

Tali Petschek: I would say art is a language. It’s a way to express feelings that don’t seem to fit with words. And it’s been a way to get to know my friends better, and it’s giving something extra attention.

What is your favorite part of Open Art Space?

My favorite part of Open Art Space is definitely getting to meet all of the different youth that come through. It’s especially nice when someone comes once and that’s it—just a little blip of life. And then it’s also really special to see people come back year after year. It’s been four years now, so it’s been really nice to see people grow into themselves and create a space that has felt comfortable to be just more of yourself—even for me.

What role does art play in creating a safe space?

In this program, it’s really a wonderful way to create a safe space because there’s not any pressure around making good art, or even a certain specific kind of art. Art helps people connect to their sillier and more light-hearted side, and even with things that aren’t so lighthearted. It allows you to talk about yourself without really putting yourself center-stage––it can be your art rather than you that has to go out into the world. Especially because art is a part of you, it’s an extension of you. You can say how you’re feeling while also gaining some distance and perspective on it.

What are your tips for fostering a community for LGBTQ+ teens and allies?

The only tip I have is to be yourself. Especially when working with youth because they are very perceptive and very aware of when you’re being genuine and when you’re not. I would say creating a safe space with youth and doing things like Open Art Space is just allowing yourself to be uncomfortable if that’s how you’re feeling that day—and just showing up as you really are.

How does art function as a facilitator for this group?

I don’t think that it has to be art to tell you the truth. It’s more about the activity of doing something together than it is about necessarily making art. I think art just happens to be something that is really fun to do as a group—together but separate. People can work together and collaborate, or just sit next to somebody and do their own thing. So, I think that can apply to other types of work, mediums, as well, and art just happens to be one of many that works particularly well for this age group and with the goal of creating community.