15 years of Kulture Klub: Art by homeless youth on display at SooVAC


With a retrospective exhibit now showing at the Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis, Kulture Klub Collaborative (KKC) is celebrating 15 years of partnering artists and homeless youth. KKC’s founder, Dorit Cypis, created the exhibit to honor the five different groups that make Kulture Klub possible: artists, homeless youth, social service organizations, arts organizations, and funders. “The five different groups create a geography on the walls,” says Mike Hoyt, KKC’s director. The gallery is divided into sections, with each of the five groups having a home.

ArtWise: 15 Years of Kulture Klub, an exhibit on display through December 14 at the Soo Visual Arts Center, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis. For information, see soovac.org. Correction 12/13/08: In this article, artist Jasmine King’s surname was originally misspelled as “Kling.”

“I saw the ‘countries’ as the organs,” wrote Cypis in an e-mail, “and the info texts and artwork as the muscles and bones.” Interweaving throughout the geography of the exhibit is a red line that, according to Cypis, “is the blood line of KKC…the youth stories that bleed through everything.”

In the social service section, a schedule of events is displayed, along with names of social services workers who have collaborated with KKC. KKC’s main social service partner is Youth Link, which has a drop-in center called Project OffStreets, in which KKC is housed. Although the two organizations are separate, they have a collaborative model, says Hoyt. “We let them do what they do well and we do what we do well and we try not to replicate services.”

The “arts organization” section of the gallery features a long list of Twin Cities organizations such as the Walker, Frank Theatre, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MacPhail, and a host of others. There is also a video featuring Stuart Pimsler Dance Theatre, and a papier-mâché bus made up of programs from events that KKC youth attended as audience members. The van, created by Jennifer Arave, symbolizes all the field trips that youth from KKC have experienced. Inside, there is a sound installation. “The most intense conversations happen in that van”, says Hoyt

There is also a section featuring art that the homeless youth have created with resident artists. “Mosaic Project,” for example, is a display of beautiful mosaics of birds, bulls, portraits and abstract work created by the youth in their work with artist-in-residence Connie Cohen.

Hoyt says there are many success stories of youth who have benefitted from KKC’s programs, but he said two individuals stand out in particular. He tells of one woman, Quendi, who came to KKC in the early days and, with Cypis’s help, wrote an essay that won her a full scholarship to college. Quendi still takes her son to an art event every Thursday with her son, to keep up the KKC tradition.

Jasmine King, who is now transitioning from KKC programs and embarking on her own career, has already exhibited at such venues as the Minneapolis Public Library and the Minnesota History Center, and was recently asked by the nationally-known muralist Lady Pink to join her in New York to work on a new project.

Throughout the gallery, pieces by professional artists who have worked with KKC fill the space with an eclectic and rich assortment of different styles. Works by Dorit Cypis, Ta-Coumba Aiken, Wing Young Huie, and many others demonstrate the high caliber of the artists who have shared their talents with homeless youth.

“We try to work with artists who are really established,” says Hoyt. When looking for artists to do residencies at KKC, Hoyt says the quality of their work as artists is the most important criterion. Some of the artists may not have previous experience working with youth previously, but the social service partners and staff train the artists to adapt to the kids’ needs.

The seeds of KKC were planted in 1992 when Cypis was living in the Twin Cities, practicing her art and teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Hoyt explains that it was a time when “the NEA Five were hot, censorship was an issue, and artists were under fire.” But Cypis was determined to survive as an artist.

She lived in a studio above Project OffStreet, a drop-in center. One day she walked in the front door and asked, “What is this place?” Hoyt explains that Cypis asked if she could be involved in some way, and the director looked at her strangely but, in the end, he let her “hang out.” She wrote a few proposals, and they let her begin programming with the guidance of George Coleman, a street outreach worker. Coleman helped Cypis connect with the youth, and according to Hoyt, they became a partnership.

“We had to get the social service folks to believe in us,” wrote Cypis, “then the funders.” The kids were always there waiting. The arts institutions were always there for us. The KKC programs grew organically. I listened for what was needed and shaped it from the inside out. It was a very aesthetic experience…form and content were always interdependent.”

Cypis moved on in 1999, but the programs she helped create grew and eventually, in 2001, KKC became an official non-profit. “It’s still growing into this skin of independence,” wrote Cypis.

Hoyt says that Cypis’s determination came from a sense of survival. “Artists by their trade are creative survivalists, and homeless youth have that same creative energy, that survival mode.”

“Homeless youth are inspired to SURVIVE,” writes Cypis. “Artists survive to be INSPIRED. Crisis youth centers are great in providing survival skills for youth, but surviving is not enough. Inspiration can bring a youth to live a creative and responsive life.”

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.