At the start of the month, the long-abandoned Mansion Inn in downtown Sacramento was filled with almost twenty artists between the ages of 14 and 18. Throughout the day, the high schoolers injected new life into the 1950s era hotel - empty white walls became blank canvases that were slowly filled with colorful words and images.
“CRE8,” read one wall. “Dance is a language,” said another. In front of a bold graffiti “STRIVE,” a two dancers twisted and turned their bodies across the plywood floor.
This display was only a sneak peak for what’s to come. This September, high school students will have the opportunity to leave their artistic fingerprints on each of the Mansion Inn’s 46 rooms before the hotel is renovated, thanks to an initiative called Tearing Walls Apart.
The abandoned hotel on 16th and H streets will reopen Sept. 20-22 to high school artists, who can work alone or in teams of up to six to create art installations that will adorn the walls hotel rooms. One lucky group will get work in the hotel’s swimming pool.
And on Sunday, Sept. 23, visitors will have the opportunity to look at the art before the hotel is torn down for renovations. Outside, more teen artists will be performing pieces ranging from spoken word to dance.
“This is an amazing opportunity for students to have a platform, speak their mind, and use art as a powerful storyteller,” said Marisa Kolokotronis, an organizer of Tearing Walls Apart and the project manager at The Grupe Co., one of the firms behind the Mansion Inn’s renovation. Kolokotronis is also the daughter of Sotiris Kolokotronis, the head of SKK Developments, another firm involved in the renovation.
The project gives high school artists the rare opportunity showcase their work to the general public, with complete agency.
“To have creative freedom in this old abandoned space – that sounded really exciting to me,” said C.K. McClatchy High senior Justine Kanzler, an artist and student ambassador for Tearing Walls Apart.
The only parameter artists are asked to adhere to is the theme “breaking boundaries with the power of art.” The artists are asked to reflect on the walls that divide, then create art – in whichever medium they choose – that sheds light on how to tear those walls apart.
“Walls symbolize things that separate us and divide us,” Kanzler said. “Tearing Walls Apart is about connecting with each other, and art is a way to do that.”
Then, after the students have illustrated on the hotel’s walls how to break down the figurative walls that separate, the physical walls of the hotel will be torn down to make way for the new development planned on the property: a boutique hotel with retro art.
To Kanzler, the exhibition is more than just a showing-room for high school art – it is an exercise in the raw vulnerability that high school students are so adept at accessing.
“Adults sort of have these walls they naturally form.” she said. “With kids, we’re still trying to figure out who we are, and we’re more open to new things.”
On September 23, visitors will get the chance to experience what that openness manifests – art imbued with raw and complex emotion. Kanzler hopes the sentiments of her artist peers, emblazoned on the walls of the Mansion Inn, will leave viewers with a better sense of how they are connected to everybody else.
“Art is when you give a piece of yourself out,” Kanzler said. “Art is a way for us to communicate more complex emotions and feelings and atmospheres, things that aren’t so easy to explain in words sometimes. Showing your art makes you more vulnerable to people. Showing these more vulnerable sides of you will help everybody connect better.”
When making their art in the days leading up to the exhibit, students will have the opportunity to connect with local professional artists too. According to Kolokotronis, every room will have an artist on site that students can consult with as they’re creating.
“I think, oftentimes, the barrier between students actually being able to make a living and create art professionally is they might not know how that manifests,” Kolokotronis said. “To be able to speak to someone who, that is their profession, I think it will be a really unique experience.”
The organizers of Tearing Walls Apart are making an effort to draw in students from across the region, to ensure as many high school students as possible have access to these kinds of resources.
“I’m a firm believer that arts education needs to be accessible to everyone, and that’s a big goal of this event, is to make it accessible to all 13 school districts (in the Sacramento region),” Kolokotronis said. “It’s our goal that every student should hear about this event.”
To increase accessibility, Tearing Walls Apart is partnering with local organizations to provide free art supplies for students. There are no fees for teens to participate in the event. And while admission to the event is free, visitors can give a $10 recommended donation at the door that will go toward the Sacramento Arts Education Consortium, an organization dedicated to improving arts education.
Sacramento-area high school artists can apply to the program here.