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Artist leads 200 students in painting masterclass on downtown LA street

George Washington Carver Middle School 7th-grader Diego Castañeda splatters paint on his canvas, which reads "ART IS COOL." He said he hopes to be an artist when he grows up. Carla Javier/KPCC

More than 200 students filled a city block in downtown Los Angeles Saturday morning to learn art from one of Panama's most prominent artists. 

You can't blame them if they were a bit star-struck.

Olga Sinclair, an abstract expressionist and Panama's cultural ambassador, took to a stage on Kohler Street to lead what sponsor was billed as L.A.'s largest-ever youth painting class.

The event fell short of the expected 1,000 school-age children, but several of those who attended said they were inspired by Sinclair.

Teaching courses on this scale was not new for Sinclair, who holds a world record for the largest communal painting created in 2014 with more than 5,000 children in Panama.

This time, though, Sinclair wanted students to paint individual works on their own canvas, inspired by music and the moment. 

Sinclair said the key to teaching so many people at the same time is to let them do what they want. 

“The most important is to let them be,” she explained. “They have to be. Let them be, and [don’t always] be preaching.” 

The street, closed to traffic and lined with artificial grass, became the easel for the students’ canvases. With pieces of charcoal and paint in three primary colors, the students created works as diverse as they are.

Some, like George Washington Carver Middle School 7th-grader Diego Castaneda, painted words.

“My piece says art is cool because it is,” he said. “I really like art.” He plans to make a living as an artist, and he hopes to become a cartoonist one day. 

Others, including 5th-grader Emily Martinez from Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, paid homage to artists they studied in school. 

She likes to paint, but she had never tried squeezing and splattering paint on canvas before.

“It felt cool,” she said. “It was the first time I did this.”

Emily said she wants to become a doctor when she grows up, but activities like this art class reminded her that she likes being creative. too.

“Maybe I will grow up and be an artist, maybe I will not,” she mused

Cathryn Deering, the arts coordinator at Emily's school, said the event was a great opportunity for her students to interact with a famous practicing artist. “So that they can see that. if that’s your passion, that’s something you can do when you grow up,” Deering explained. 

After the class ended, artwork lined the sidewalks. They featured shapes, suns, peace signs, and self-portraits. 

Sinclair said the students – and their work – gave her hope.

“We have to create a new generation of children with sensibility, love and care,” she said. “Art is the most important weapon to create that.” 

Inner-City Arts, a Skid Row-based arts education nonprofit, sponsored the event. The class was part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a citywide collaboration of institutions exploring Latin American and Latino art.

Saturday's class was offered to students attending schools considered underserved and is part of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

This story was updated.