The love virus

Almost 50 Oak Cliff high school students applied for 24 slots to work on a project with artist Karen Blessen.

How do you make sure a teenager really wants the job?

Ask them to show up for an 8 a.m. interview on a Saturday. That’s one way Blessen’s nonprofit arts organization 29 Pieces did it.

“We wanted to give them the feeling that they were applying for a position,” project manager Mauricio Navarro says. “We wanted them to really feel connected to the project.”

Piece 24 “aims to spread the message of a ‘viral influence’ that inspires people to choose to be contagions of respect and compassion for all living things.”

It’s not just volunteering. The 24 students chosen for the project receive a $250 scholarship for every 30 hours they work.

And they’re not there passively. The students conceive, design, create and craft all of the projects that are part of Piece 24, including the final signature, a totem that will be placed somewhere in Oak Cliff.

Piece 24 has a storefront in the 500 block of West Jefferson, strategically placed to be convenient to Sunset and Adamson high schools, and they work Tuesday through Saturday.

Real estate investor Craig Schenkel is Blessen’s partner in Piece 24. They met while working out at Doug’s Gym downtown. He says he already knew her reputation.

“If she got behind it, it would be done right,” he says. “I knew she could pull this off.”

Schenkel is not an artist, but he is an Oak Cliff booster who has donated and raised funds for Sunset and Adamson; that money has been used for band instruments, football uniforms and other things the schools need. His role in Piece 24, he says, is to raise the money.

He’s motivated by his desire to “level the playing field” for high school students in the Oak Cliff neighborhood where he’s invested in commercial real estate and has an office. Neighborhood kids too often are “used to being passed over and underappreciated,” he says.

Piece 24 is in line with 29 Pieces’ overall mission of creating peace and love through art, and it is driven by the poem “Let Me Walk in Beauty.” Most of the kids involved see Piece 24 as a way to foster neighborhood pride.

“People think Oak Cliff is a bad ’hood,” says Karina Muñiz, a 16-year-old junior at Adamson, who already has earned $500 in scholarships. “The best way to show that Oak Cliff is a beautiful place is through art.”

Yes, a 16-year-old really said that. Schenkel, Blessen and everyone else we spoke to who are involved with Piece 24 said the best part is the students.

“I’ve been impressed with their professionalism,” Schenkel says.

Every Friday, Blessen brings in professional artists to work with the students so that they can see there are careers available in the arts. Eno’s, Hattie’s and Nova provide lunches on Fridays.

Sometimes the artists show the students techniques. Artist Nancy Pollock taught them mosaic.

Asked what they’ve learned through Piece 24, almost all the students mention mosaic. And the steppingstones Pollock walked them through creating are strikingly beautiful and professional looking.

“The kids are amazing,” she says. “The creativity is unbelievable. I have a great respect for their art.”

Ysidro Garcia, 18, graduated from Sunset and is enrolled at Mountain View College. He has a part time position at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Even so, he says, the application and interview for Piece 24, “was intense.”

He says he also wants to shine a positive light on Oak Cliff. Jefferson Boulevard is misunderstood, he says.

“There are nice people around here,” he says. “People have good motives around here. This is a way to show that side of it.”

Beyond that, it’s a safe place where creative high school students can try things artistically and not be judged.

Richard Rodriguez, a 17-year-old junior at Sunset, points to the colorful mock-up totem he created.

“All of those are positivity viruses,” he says. “See how everything is climbing up?”

Piece 24 started meeting in May. Blessen expects Piece 24 to build its full-scale 15-foot totem next spring.

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