Every year since 2001, the Studio Museum in Harlem has hosted an annual, eight-month photography program for children in high school or GED programs that allows them to get an expansive education in image-making. The program, which is fittingly called Expanding the Walls, was fundamentally disrupted this year by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of being able to gather for workshops and field excursions, kids in the program were forced to confine themselves to their homes, and lessons had to be conducted remotely. Nevertheless, on July 30, the Studio Museum will launch an online exhibition featuring the photography of this year’s fifteen teenage participants title “Hearts in Isolation: Expanding the Walls 2020.”
As one can imagine, developing artists confined within limited spaces are severely restricted, while also paradoxically presented with a unique opportunity to transcend their lived experiences. Jean Espinoza’s The Look of Honesty presents the viewer with an image that’s instantly emotionally resonant: Espinoza, surrounded by the trappings of a kitchen, gazes in the direction of the camera lens with a look of resigned exhaustion. April Riley’s New heights takes things in a different direction. Riley captures a New York City street from above and through a hole of some kind, prompting the viewer to take a closer look at a vista they might see everyday.
“Community has always been a key pillar of the Expanding the Walls program,” Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said in a statement. “This year, the program’s twentieth, the students and mentors faced an unprecedented set of new challenges that redefined that pillar. At a time when home can feel isolating, the program created a critical space for community, and the camera became a tool for students to confront unexpected circumstances.”
During a time in which escape or relief from the news cycle is both physically and conceptually impossible, art and creative work are perhaps the only practices that can offer lasting satisfaction. For these reasons and others, exhibitions like “Expanding the Walls” are more vital to New York City’s survival than ever.