We had the opportunity to talk with members of the Visual Arts Collective, a community hub for creative teens, based at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition to getting together for shared, collaborative studio time, members of the collective curate multi-media art shows, host guest workshops, invite visiting artists, organize gallery and museum tours, and create other opportunities to engage with their community through art. The young artists (Catie, Marcus, Mattea, Noe, and Dara) talked about learning the difference between talent and creativity, becoming part of an art collective, and the magic of grocery bags.

What’s something important that you have learned about art or design?

Catie: For me, an important thing was learning the difference between talent and creativity. I feel like after going to art school for a year, especially being in a fine arts program, there were a lot of people that had very applicable talents, like they could paint a person really well, or they could draw scenery. But then at a certain point, creativity is what’s going to separate one person from everyone else. The thing that will really make you stand out is your creativity, your own style, and that comes with learning more about yourself, what you can do and what you want to do.

When did you realize that?

Catie: It was probably my art teacher, Mr. Benedict, from my junior year of high school. I started out around fifth grade drawing anime style, mostly cartoons, nothing super crazy, and I had repeated that style for so long that I could do it really well. But when I started applying to colleges and internships and I showed Mr. Benedict my portfolio, he said, look, you can replicate a style really well, but it’s not interesting to me because so many people have done it before. He said, I can see that you have talent. I can see your style peeking through but you really need to harness it and bring it out. Stop doing the same thing over and over, and go past the boundaries of what you think you can do.

So it was probably around that time and then that’s when I started bringing out my own style and swaying away from that norm. It was like maybe I’ll try make it look less anime and do more realistic, or maybe I’ll do some different color schemes I usually do, that I usually don’t do. And I think that’s just kind of where it grew out to be. And that’s why I like to continue art still, because I’m not doing the same thing that I was.

How did you decide to be part of this collective?

Marcus: I’m not a traditional art student. Did I take art classes in high school? No. But I’ve always been interested in infrastructure and design and especially ordinary stuff, and I didn’t really care what the stuff was meant to be used for, so I would be like, yeah, I like paper bags! I was just into paper bags and stuff. I’m just interested in how stuff works and how to make it better. I work with stuff that I have access to at the moment. It’s what materials I have access to, and so I adapt and change, I change with it. I’m never doing the same thing. For me, everything is about: are you going to recreate the system that’s already exists, or create a new system?

So how did you decide that was art instead of engineering?

Marcus: Oh, because I’m bad at math. [laughter]

Mattea: For me, I came to the Neutral Zone initially for a leadership and activism program. Then I started studying here on Wednesdays and I noticed that some of my friends would come out of the art room every now and then to get snacks. I would always talk to them and they’d be like, oh yeah, I’m in Visual Arts Collective. And I was like, oh, what’s that? But I was a freshman. I was shy. So I didn’t go in or anything. God forbid!

But the next year I finally got the guts to go in. Initially I just sat in in on one of them and I just kept coming. And I don’t know, it’s just been a really nice space for me to express myself with other people, because a lot of times as someone who has been developing my portfolio for a while, I find myself just doing art alone in my house for 11 hours at a time. But then I come here and it’s like more of a social and collaborative kind of experience, and I like that a lot. For example, earlier this afternoon we were talking about ways that we could find something collaborative to put in our art show.

Say more about the art show.

Noe: We’ve chosen our theme, which is going to be “evolution.” We do a voting process every year — everyone writes suggestions on sticky notes and we vote with stickers. Then we invite people in the community — teens from throughout the county — to submit art that they have made or that they want to create. We set up the foundation but the community collaborates to create the show — a lot of stuff ends up getting made here in the studio.

Dara: We’re helping people to be able to communicate with each other visually. That’s like an important skill, and one that you don’t always learn in art class.