Local nonprofit Art Buddies helps children cultivate their creative side.
Minnesota Business magazine sat down with Scott Mikesh, president and executive director of Art Buddies, a nonprofit that pairs students with creative professionals to inspire and encourage the next generation’s creativity. We wanted to know: How does Mikesh express his own creativity, and what does art mean to him?
How did you get involved in Art Buddies?
I first got involved with Art Buddies in 2007, midway through my corporate marketing career. I had volunteered to support various health initiatives, professional associations and social justice issues, and I really wanted to do something different that tapped my passion for creativity and kids.
So I Googled creative mentoring programs in the Twin Cities and found Art Buddies. It was the perfect fit for me, because it was a set time and place I could just show up each week. All the art supplies and project materials are provided.
When did you first realize you were creative?
I’d have to say that what made me realize my creative abilities was when my family and friends took notice — when they commended me for my drawing and crafting abilities. My parents were always supportive and encouraged my artistic endeavors from a very early age. It also didn’t hurt that my parents were professional musicians.
I think we are all creative in different ways, and some of us just get recognized and encouraged for it at an earlier age than others. That’s why I’m a firm believer that the sooner we can encourage young people to value their creativity, the less likely they’ll feel uncreative later in life — something I hear so many adults say about themselves.
And that’s one thing I love about Art Buddies — that we encourage kids of all skill levels and abilities to realize the value of their creativity, that it is really more about exploration than perfection.
What is your creative outlet?
When I was young, it was drawing and cartooning, then music and dance. I still find the combination of music and movement very invigorating.
When I got older and owned a house, it became painting and decorating (since necessity is the mother of invention). I also turn to writing when my brain won’t shut up.
Part of the reason I got involved with Art Buddies was to reconnect with my childhood dreams again. I was inspired by so many of the creative people involved that I left my corporate job and started my own interactive design business, Scott Mikesh Creative, and ventured into commercial illustration. I explored the syndicated comics business by creating an online comic strip based on my nieces and family pets called “Popcorn Toons.” The name is homage to two of my favorites: Peanuts and Looney Tunes.
What does art mean to you?
Art is often considered a form of self-expression, and in my life, it’s been a practice of focus and self-discovery.
Art really inspires thought and curiosity. It’s a great way to focus and calm an anxious body or racing mind. When the world gets too loud and cluttered with stuff, worries or conflict, art allows my thoughts to run free and then focus — on that line, shape, note or movement. Mentally, physically and emotionally, art helps me find a sense of calm, to reconnect with myself and the world.
There are things I’ve created that I’m not happy with, but those experiences challenge me to stretch myself creatively. Then there are things I create that sometimes surprise me and give me a great sense of joy and accomplishment. Sometimes those accomplishments even turn into business opportunities.
Tell me about Art Buddies and the impact it has in the community.
Art Buddies is an after-school, one-on-one mentoring program for kids from low-income neighborhoods. Every year, Art Buddies pairs more than 200 kids at partnering elementary schools in the Twin Cities with more than 200 adults from various creative backgrounds. We use the power of creativity and individual attention to help kids take pride in who they are and what they can do by being creative.
Each mentor works with his or her buddy to create a story and character that reflect the child’s unique interests, strengths and dreams. At the end of the program, we celebrate their creations with a big costume parade, presentation and professional photo shoot at the school.
It’s a truly transformative experience for the kids when they “become” their art. They actually become the powerful and magical beings they envisioned and receive applause and attention from teachers, parents and peers for their accomplishments.
The personal attention and the exposure to various artistic methods and careers help kids build confidence in their abilities and feel excited about school and learning. Seeing how adults use creativity in the work they do helps kids realize creativity is a valuable skill that could help them succeed and make a good life for themselves too.
Why is mentorship from the business community important to the kids?
Art Buddies kids come from low-income communities where the only jobs they know might be those of their parents or guardians, or what they see on YouTube or television. They often have no idea of all the creative jobs out there in the business world, such as marketing, architecture, advertising, animation, interior design and web design to name a few. Kids are always amazed when mentors share that they’ve designed video games, buildings, or logos that the kids might be familiar with or wearing.
Unfortunately, art programs are often the first to get cut from school budgets. The focus of most after-school programs tends to be reading, writing, math and science, since they often have the most obvious value in business.
While creativity often falls off the list of important business skills, companies are becoming more and more aware of the value of creativity, especially when it comes to innovation, product design, marketing, branding, sustainability and problem-solving.
Part of Art Buddies’ mission is to raise awareness about the importance and value of creativity in education and business, to help cultivate creativity in kids, our future workforce.
How are local businesses supporting Art Buddies?
Local businesses support Art Buddies in many ways, most importantly through cash donations and promoting community service. Several businesses make an annual contribution to Art Buddies, and many encourage their employees to volunteer.
We have been very fortunate that for the past 20 years, we have operated out of Carmichael Lynch advertising agency in downtown Minneapolis. It provides essential office space, supplies and support. It also hosts two fundraisers for Art Buddies each year.
Our volunteers regularly express how inspiring it is to connect with other creative professionals and how much they look forward to getting out of their offices and away from computers to rejuvenate their creative senses. For kids, that creative energy can transcend into their school work, and for adults, it can transcend into their work.
What’s your favorite success story about Art Buddies?
While I’ve witnessed many inspiring stories and transformations over my past 10 years with Art Buddies, one that captures the impact of what we do really well is the story of Adriana Garcia, a former Art Buddies student who returned to volunteer 13 years later, to mentor a child the way she had been mentored.
When she applied, Adriana told us, “Art Buddies really impacted my life as a child. It was something I always looked forward to. … My mentors helped my creativity fly and made it a reality. I hope to make a child feel the way I did at that age. It was certainly magical for me.”
Adriana is now a social and creative media manager at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis and is studying to complete her degree in marketing.
When kids and adults realize the real value of their creativity, we all benefit.