Friday, May 24, 2024

Teen artists prepare the Cambridge Arts Council’s 344 Broadway gallery for Breathe Cambridge, a multimedia exhibit on display until Sept. 12.

The finished gallery, including furniture designed and built by students and instructors at the Gately Youth Center, is meant to “get you low to the ground, where the walls would seem like a large expanse of sky, make you a little bit smaller, and take a moment to listen to the poetry.” (Photo: Natalie Au)

“I breathe Cambridge,” “I am love,” “I inhale the universe,” “I exhale the future,” “I dream in third person,” “I sigh until my lungs are empty”… At Breathe Cambridge, a multimedia exhibition in its final dozen days at the Cambridge Arts Council gallery, these seemingly random phrases are painted on walls and echoed in an endless soundtrack. On little pastel blue tables in the middle of the room are pens and countless copies of a single sheet, the “I Breathe” template that resulted in the voices and anonymous poetry adorning the walls. Visitors are encouraged to fill them out, then record themselves reading it — much like the people they hear while visiting.

The exhibition is the fruit of a two-year program by the Gately Youth Center in which a group of 14- to 17-year olds went out into the city to record what they heard.

Not all of it was people reading from their “I Breathe” templates.

“They captured sounds, voices, thoughts, musical performances, traffic noises … the kids just wanted  to capture Cambridge,” said Julie Madden, director of community arts at the council.

Later the recordings were remixed with music and beats, resulting in the mesmerizing soundscape that fills the sky-blue gallery exhibit.

The city’s Public Arts Youth Council and Neighborhood Service Project of the Cambridge’s Office of Workforce Development contributed funding. Because it was all about encapsulating the essence of Cambridge, the exhibition’s nearly three-month stay at the Cambridge Arts Council was a natural fit.

“[The exhibition] really gave us a fitting end to that project,” said the superintendent of the project, artist Robert Lembo. “It was an opportunity for us to present back to the community what the young people feel about it, through the way they know their community best, which is through making art.”

Starting to ‘Breathe’

Lembo created the “I Breathe” template while working as a teaching artist in the Gavin Foundation in South Boston. The foundation ran a program called Cushing House for 14- to 19-year-olds in the early stages of recovery from substance abuse, mostly from heroin.

“They had to have some kind of reflection, and in that there is an artistic process,” Lembo said. “We were looking for a nonreligious way for them to reflect, on a number of different psychological levels.” And thus, the “I Breathe” template was developed, a list of phrases such as “I sing,” “I smile” and “I sigh,” with blanks afterward for the writer to fill in his or her own thoughts.

Wanting to develop a public art program with a community service aspect, Lembo brought the project to Cambridge. He wanted to help young people connect with the community — “to draw attention to all the good things in Cambridge,” he said.

The 10 artists who mixed the “Breathe” voice recordings, designed the exhibit and prepared the space were chosen from among 32 applicants.

Breathe Cambridge was one of Lembo’s first projects after arriving, largely a reaction to the fact that the neighborhood around the Gately Youth Center, on Rindge Avenue not far from Porter Square, has the highest percentage of girls ages 13 to 19 in Cambridge, yet the lowest percentage taking part in youth programs. Lembo wanted to devise something that would be appealing to young women, to bring them in as leaders in the community and not just as people receiving services. Gately staff visited high schools, asking if students would be interested in joining the program, working with computers and writing poetry. Fifteen girls were chosen and taught how to go into classrooms and lead poetry workshops. At the end of the workshops, the girls collected recordings of “I Breathe” poems and brought them back to the center. The 12-week program connected the girls with community organizations, schools, churches, temples and agencies, resulting in 500 collected voices.

For the next step, interviews in February reduced 32 applicants to the 10 young people chosen to participate in making those recordings into an exhibition, including training from musician Mars Jupiter and youth worker Shea Pilsbury in editing the tapes into a soundscape.

“They had to learn how to honor the voices that were collected, but also put their own creative touch,” Lembo said.

Made by hand

The students went to the center every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to work on the project for three hours a day, managing a balance between schoolwork and art. The 10 artists also fashioned the layout of the eventual exhibit, designed the color palette, picked the typography and placements of the phrases on the walls. Even the furniture in the gallery was designed by the artists and made by the adult staff of the youth center before the June 20 opening. “Everything was made except for the computers,” Lembo said.

The first priority, though, was finding the community through mixing the recordings.

“Getting around Cambridge, places that I haven’t been to before — it was a good experience to find different places,” said Brandi Santiago, a 16-year-old at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School who recalled the thrill of visiting a Porter Square gallery where an artist “wanted to hear my tracks, and she kept telling me how each piece was different and I stuck with my own originality … and I felt very proud of myself. Somebody likes my pieces!”

When visitors settle down on the gallery cushions, look around at the poetry on every surface and absorb the looped soundscape, it is easy to feel stunned, but what Breathe Cambridge offers also seems natural and simple. The point of the exhibit, its creators explain, was to create a space outside of regular life where visitors could just “take a breath,” and so the furniture is low to the ground and soft.

“The idea was to get you low to the ground, where the walls would seem like a large expanse of sky, make you a little bit smaller, and take a moment to listen to the poetry,” Lembo said.

Breathe Cambridge runs until Sept. 12 at the Community Arts Council gallery on the second floor of the City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway. The gallery is open Mondays and Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to noon. Call (617) 349-4380 or click here. Breathe Cambridge, the youth center and council are also sponsors of a back-to-school teen poetry slam with Toni B., the city’s poet populist, from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the gallery. Call (617) 34-6277.