Van Go celebrating 20 years of ‘Benchmark’ program with unveiling of new creations
photo by: Joanna Hlavacek
After 20 years, the benches have become an indelible part of the Lawrence landscape, adorning the entrances, lobbies and corridors of local businesses, community organizations and private residences across the city and beyond.
More than 400 of these benches are now scattered around Douglas County, each one “as unique as the kids we hire,” says Rick Wright, art director at Lawrence’s Van Go Inc. The nonprofit is celebrating 20 years of its popular “Benchmark” program this summer, with an unveiling ceremony of the 20 newest benches slated for 5 p.m. Friday.
Every summer during “Benchmark,” Van Go enlists at least 20 apprentice artists to create the colorful benches, matching youth with clients — e.g., local businesses, community organizations and private donors — to produce custom works of art for public display.
The summer session is one of several programs offered by Van Go, which provides jobs-based arts training to at-risk teens and young adults in Douglas County.
“It’s kind of a visual calling card to what Van Go does,” Wright says of the “Benchmark” program.
“People associate us largely with the benches and the public art we have, but what they really should also begin to understand is the story behind these benches,” he adds. “It’s really about empowering our youth to grow as individuals and learn how to navigate the world beyond school — how to have a job, how to hold a job, how to please your boss, please your clients — and really gain a lot of self-esteem and confidence in the meantime.”
It’s worked out well for Ana Schuette, a recent Lawrence High School graduate and two-year Van Go veteran. For this year’s “Benchmark,” she’s created a Japanese-inspired bench decorated with images of craggy peaks, stylized clouds, wading cranes and koi fish.
The 17-year-old counts Asian art as one of her influences. Schuette says she’s considering applying to art school, but hasn’t decided yet on a career choice. Still, the lessons she has learned at Van Go will serve her well in the future, she attests.
“I’ve been more confident going to Van Go, I’ve made more friends and I’ve opened up a lot more than I was (before),” Schuette says.
Now that she has graduated from high school, her time in Van Go’s JAMS program (an acronym for Jobs in the Arts Make Sense; the year-round session is open to ages 14 to 18) will soon come to an end.
“I’ve applied for The Arts Train,” Schuette says of Van Go’s program for 18- to 24-year-olds. “So, hopefully, I’ll get in. But if I don’t, I’ll still be included in Van Go in different ways,” whether through volunteer work or simply dropping in for a visit once in a while.
Ruby Hale’s time with Van Go is just beginning. The 14-year-old was matched with Junior Wedd, wife of longtime LHS football coach Dirk Wedd, to create a personal bench celebrating his recent retirement after 29 years with the Lions.
Over the last two months, Hale has met twice with her client, developing a design concept and working with Van Go staff to create a full-scale blueprint in between meetings with Wedd. Along the way, she has learned how to balance the wants of the client with her own artistic vision, how to dress and comport herself professionally, and how to build up confidence in her own abilities.
Hale, who starts her freshman year at Free State High School in the fall, also says the program has given her a home away from home.
“This is a place where you can be who you are, and you’ll be accepted,” Hale says. “I find that really amazing.”
That’s because empowerment is built right into Van Go’s mission, says Wright, the nonprofit’s art director. As part of “Benchmark,” apprentice artists also receive counseling, life-skills lessons, health and wellness education, and daily nutritious lunches.
“You can really see people come out of their shell,” he says. “We may have some new apprentice artists each session that come in and they’re a little quiet, a little shy and they’re not sure what to think of things, but by the time they leave, they really feel like this place is a second home and what they’ve done here is meaningful and valuable and appreciated.”
The artists also take home a small paycheck for their work, earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour over eight weeks.
“It’s just a really fun thing to do over the summer,” Hale agrees. “You’re making money to do art.”
This year’s “Benchmark” unveiling ceremony is scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday at Van Go Inc., 715 New Jersey St. The event is free and open to the public.