At-Risk Youth Create Art Exhibit at SLC Library Exploring Water, Identity

“We Are All Water” is on display at the Day-Riverside Branch of the Salt Lake City Library System.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pieces of an art exhibit at the Day-Riverside Branch of the Salt Lake City Library System were created by youth from the Salt Lake Valley Youth Center and depict their relationship with water on Thursday, January. 19, 2023

How do you perceive water?

That was the question fueling the newest art collection to be featured at the Salt Lake City Library System’s Day-Riverside branch in Rose Park.

Teens from the Salt Lake Valley Youth Center, which offers educational programs for at-risk youth, were asked to use the Jordan River as inspiration for a series of self-portraits that will eventually make their way to the walls of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Each piece in the We Are Water exhibit is anonymous to protect the privacy of the student who created it, but each photo tells a personal story.

“It’s me and the river,” reads one of the descriptions.

The artwork shows a brown-haired girl with a halo and a black, red and orange checkered shirt. A painted piece of paper representing the river flows down its face.

“Why I chose black, red and orange,” the description reads, “is because it shows my day [and] what I was when or until I succeeded.’

Also on display as part of the exhibit was a tie-dye cloth made by students and shaped to resemble the meandering Jordan River that flows near the South Salt Lake Youth Center.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Art depicting the Jordan River in an exhibit at the Day-Riverside Branch of the Salt Lake City Library System was created by youth from the Salt Lake Valley Youth Center and depicts their connection to water Thursday, 19 January 2023

Most of the art the students create is introspective, said Kathryn Nelson, a science teacher at the youth center.

“A lot of it,” she said, “has to do with how they see themselves in the environment.”

Often, these students have struggled while trying to complete a regular public school curriculum, Nelson said. They are usually not included in other parts of the community.

“They’re not in clubs. They don’t go to church,” Nelson said. “They’re just one of them [groups] it kind of moves like a ghost through our community.

But pieces like We Are All Water, she said, give these students an opportunity to share their hopes, dreams and concerns with the larger community.

The exhibit is a product of the STEM Community Alliance program, an initiative of the University of Utah and the Utah State Board of Education that provides science, technology, engineering and math learning opportunities to at-risk youth.

After seeing the completed work, program organizers said the exhibition provided an important platform for students to express themselves.

“Oftentimes, students in youth detention feel that they are represented in a certain way by other people,” said Laura George, associate program director for the STEM Community Alliance. “So, I think it’s powerful for them to be able to create an image of themselves to present in the community.”

It’s also a chance for students to have their voices heard on important issues, George said, and advocate for positive change on a topic they care deeply about: the environment.

“We can’t reverse the damage, but we can change so we don’t cause more,” one student wrote under a drawing. “We hope this gives you something to think about about the individual changes you can make.” Each of us can make a difference.”

Nelson said the students are excited about how Utah is changing as a relentless drought grips the state and the Great Salt Lake shrinks.

“They’re really, really worried about the way the character of this place is going to change if we lose the lake,” Nelson said. “And they really understand the importance of having water close to our environment.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pieces of an art exhibit at the Day-Riverside Branch of the Salt Lake City Library System were created by youth from the Salt Lake Valley Youth Center and depict their relationship with water on Thursday, January. 19, 2023

The STEM Community Alliance Program and the Day-Riverside Branch hosted a reception Thursday to celebrate the exhibit with the general public. Those in attendance marveled at the beauty of the piece and the depth of the message behind it.

“They want the community to care more about water,” Megan Singleton said after reading the descriptions that accompany each piece. “And then they also said this about themselves, that they like this project because they just want to be seen and they want others to see them and see the water.”

The library is only the first stop of the art installation. The collection will move to the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in March before heading to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

There are tentative plans to add more work from students in other programs that were inspired by different watersheds, such as the Provo River and the Ogden River.

alixel cabrera is America Report corps member and writes about the state of communities in the western Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your matching donation to our RFA grant helps her keep writing stories like this; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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