A new upbeat and colorful mural at Helena High School.

Another one painted a few years ago on the outside of the United Way building.

A monthly art "zine."

And an art vending machine.

These are just a few of the things the ATAC teen group has been up to at the Holter Museum of Art.

The Afterschool Teen Arts Council, which has been around for two to three years, is a home away from home for 20 some teens ages eighth grade through high school seniors.

“Definitely the people,” says Kaisha Gerhardt, 17, a HHS junior of why she’s been coming to the Holter for almost three years.

She likes the camaraderie of both the students and the Holter staff they work with.

“We’re all so different but we all come together. We’re all really open about everything. We’re just really here for each other too,” she said of ATAC.

Silkscreen printing is one of the skills she’s learned at ATAC, which she’s used to print her own designs on T-shirts.

Cosmic bowling was another fun activity, which the group had raised money to do.

She’s also really liking the art vending machine that the ATAC teens are filling up with art.

And they like making cotton candy, which the ATAC kids do regularly for Holter events.

But it’s not just the fun and acceptance she finds that keep drawing her back every Wednesday afternoon after school.

“It helps to have all these (art) supplies for me and people who are willing to help and encourage your creativity,” Gerhardt added. “I want to make a career in art.”

“Honestly, I’m so happy I’m part of it. I really love the people.”

Hines admitted she was a bit terrified to offer a program for teens at first because it was an age group she hadn’t worked with before.

Now she loves it.

The teens pretty much take the lead about what they want to do, she said.

Their latest idea is throwing an art prom or anti-prom at the Holter and opening it to anyone who wants to come.

It’s an idea Hines never would have thought of, she said.

“Art is a great equalizer,” she added. It allows some kids to express feelings they really can’t in a verbal conversation.

She also marvels about how open and caring and accepting they are of each other and also open to inviting in new teens.

“They welcome new members,” she said, and they keep track of each other and how they are doing.

ATAC is part of the Holter’s larger vision to be “a better part of the community,” said Holter executive director Chris Riccardo. It came about when the Holter was doing some soul-searching several years ago about its role in the community.

ATAC and the arts give kids “an opportunity to express themselves,” he said. “It opens up a space for kids to talk about some really difficult issues they’re dealing with everyday.”

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The Holter is not doing therapy, he said, but “we really believe that art can heal.”

He and Hines are seeing the teens growing and gaining confidence.

The teens are also learning a lot by interacting with the museum’s exhibits, such as the current CAVE exhibit that is inspired by ancient cave art and modern neuroscience.

The Holter is also trying to offer activities the teens want to try, such as a workshop in manga, a style of Japanese comics.

Hines is bringing in a comics artist for a June workshop.

The ATAC teens help out the Holter on Art Walk nights, during the Fall Fest, at Corks & Canvas classes and more, said Hines. “They’re really an integral part of the museum culture.”

“They’re also our teen representatives out in the community,” said Riccardo.

“ATAC is a really special program,” said Capital High School senior Delaney Knudson, who’s been coming for several years. “Everyone is supportive of each other and we care a lot about each other and we’re kind of our own little family.”

“We have a lot of fun. It’s a really welcoming environment. It’s a really safe space for everyone that’s in it. We can be ourselves and not hold anything back.”

ATAC has both boosted her career dreams and her community.

“I’m an animator. I just got an acceptance letter to the Minneapolis College of Art & Design,” she said, and is also waiting to hear from other programs.

“I certainly wouldn’t be pursuing the arts if it hadn’t been for the Holter. ... Overall, I just feel very privileged that it’s a program that exists in our town. The Holter is kind of a hidden treasure. I definitely wish more kids knew about it and would come. We love all the Holter staff. ...Sondra is so amazing. We call her our Art Mom. We’re her kids. We love her so much.”

For more information about the Holter Museum of Art and its ATAC program, call Hines at 442-6400 ext. 108.

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