Drawing hope 

Portrait of the artist as a young man

Simeon Statem has never set foot inside an art museum. He has difficulty naming any painters, living or dead, whose work he admires. Apart from grade-school art classes, he's never had any formal instruction. Yet the 17-year-old dropout flashes a broad, infectious smile when imagining how he would feel opening his first one-man show.

"I'd love to have a gallery with my drawings in it," he says, nodding his head approvingly at the thought.

It wasn't always like this. A year ago, the 6-foot-tall teenager, who spent his afternoons hanging out on the street with his friends and causing mischief, found himself looking through a set of bars. Mistaken by police for an adult because of his imposing size and with no ID to prove otherwise, he spent four eye-opening days in jail for marijuana possession.

"Some of the people seemed to like being there and I thought, this isn't for me," Simeon says.

Fortunately, someone else realized there was more to the soft-spoken teen than his baggy jeans and growing rap sheet. Before his hearing in Fulton County juvenile court, Simeon mentioned to Judge David Smith that he liked to draw. Smith saw an avenue to reach a troubled kid and gave him a break that has, against the odds, taken Simeon off the streets and inspired him to pursue a career in art.

Growing up in Chicago and then north Atlanta, Simeon had never used any materials more sophisticated than a No. 2 pencil and a sheet of notebook paper to render pictures of family members and portraits of neighborhood kids. He admired his uncle's drawing talent and both of them would spend time sketching together. He's most proud of a collective portrait he drew of all the male members of his family.

To his friends, Simeon's artwork was an interesting hobby, but they expected him to leave his pencil behind when they went out looking for trouble. His parents worked long hours to support their six children while Simeon started causing problems at 14. He skipped classes and was kicked out of middle school for fighting. He was arrested for jumping MARTA turnstiles and struggled in the alternative school where he was transferred.

"I was a follower, hanging with the wrong people," he now says.

Then came his appearance before Judge Smith, who ordered Simeon to attend a year-long job training course as a condition of his probation.

Art-at-Work isn't for every juvenile delinquent. Of the dozens of non-violent offenders assigned to the county after-school program at the Studioplex lofts over the course of a year, most show up only once before dropping out. Others stick with it a week or so before deciding there's some place they'd rather be. Only a handful make it through the entire year, even though students are paid $6 an hour for learning such skills as pottery-making, jewelry design and, new this year, glass-blowing.

Other kids have bigger problems than simply not getting jazzed about art, says program director Tae Earl. In recent months, one class member ran away from home, another was forced to drop out to receive treatment for a venereal disease. One youngster who was doing strong work in the program was arrested for joyriding in a stolen car when he was supposed to be in class.

Still, there are others who get hooked, such as the teen who ran away from a county youth shelter but still managed to make it to art class, recalls Judge Smith.

Simeon was one of those few who found it hard to stay away, even though the skill being studied that year was woodworking and furniture-making, not drawing. For two-and-a-half hours a day, three days a week, he came to the studio to learn from visiting instructors how to shape and sand wood into functional works of art. By the end of the year, he'd crafted a 7-foot totem pole and built a chair that he decorated with portraits of two of his personal heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Tupac Shakur.

"I never got tired of the class. I was always smiling and I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life." Unusual words from a kid who had long dreamed of being a pro football player or a rap star.

Another break came when Simeon was encouraged by his alternative school advisor to draw a portrait of outgoing state Juvenile Justice Commissioner Eugene Walker. When Walker was presented with the artwork at his retirement ceremony and was told it had been done by a teen on probation, he offered to have his department pay the tuition of any college Simeon wanted to attend.

Simeon intends to live up to that promise. This fall, after he earns his GED, he plans to pursue a two-year associate's degree in graphic design at the Art Institute of Atlanta.

"When I saw people were willing to help me, I thought I should take advantage of that," Simeon says.

He'll get more opportunities soon. This summer, he's looking forward to helping Atlanta sculptor Martin Dawe work on a complex installation that has been commissioned for the lobby of the county's planned new Juvenile Court building. He's also been accepted at ARTSCooL, an eight-week arts apprenticeship program offered by the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, which, like Art-at-Work, pays at-risk teens a stipend for attending.

"Simeon is one of our better success stories because he's so serious about his future," says Smith, who became convinced of the teen's sincerity when Simeon gave him a self-portrait showing him looking out of the bars of a jail cell and inscribed, "Thanks for opening my eyes, Judge Smith." The framed pencil drawing hangs in Smith's chambers.

Turning his life around hasn't come without costs for Simeon.

"My old friends are mad at me for not wanting to hang out anymore. They say, 'You're doing good,'" he says in a mocking tone. "But in their hearts I think they know I'm doing the right thing."

Simeon's mother, Darius Statem, is certain he is.

"We'd almost given up on him," she concedes. "There wasn't a school in his district that would take him. We wanted him to realize that life isn't just a game."

A few years from now, however, she expects to attend her son's first gallery opening.

"This is going to be his way out; there's so much he can do with his drawing," she says.

Art-at-Work will host an opening reception for an exhibition of student glasswork Friday, May 25, from 6-8 p.m. at Studioplex, 659 Auburn Ave., Suite 253. 404-224-3454.



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