Sacred Space: Venice Arts
Interview With Elysa Voshell

By Mende Smith



A few blocks from the Venice Walk Streets and nearby Abbott Kinney shopping district, Venice Arts is tucked among the refurbished storefronts of Lincoln Boulevard and the façade of the art center building looks much like all the others to non-local visitors. 

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As a part of Venice Arts’ anniversary celebrations, Reap Mediazine honors the steadfast supporters, organizers, founders, and mentors of Venice Arts.  Awe inspired by their story, we caught up with VA’s Associate Director / Gallery & Public Programs Director Elysa Voshell.

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Every kid in Venice knows the name Venice Arts (VA); the art school and production gallery facilitates creativity, encourages community, and has served thousands of low-income kids for 21 years. For Voshell, this is not just a job. It is a daily opportunity to celebrate the work she does for the legion of emerging artists of one of L.A’s most famous neighborhoods.

Without the center’s dedicated creative staff, community supporters, and teaching artists, it may as well be just another dollar store; electronics repair shop, or expensive clothier. But this is a sacred space, the school and gallery make artists out of urban street kids, providing the classroom, the gallery, all materials, and modern tools of the trade equal to any privileged education tuition free. At Venice Arts, the only fee for this opportunity is dedication and the willingness to learn and to create assorted media.

Venice Arts Kids At Work

“A lot of the kids that go through our program can go for free, about 95 percent pay nothing at all. Our program is free for low-income families and we serve about 400 students a year—it is really exciting to see the new students trickling in again for our spring classes right now and to see what everyone’s working on.” Voshell says.

It is clear that Voshell loves her job. In the five years since she has been with Venice Arts, she has been at the helm of its gallery to watch the Center grow. Now they have nine fulltime staffers as well as eighteen part-time teaching artists and over thirty volunteer artist mentors, all of whom work together in a sacred space to make this program possible.

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 “We also have a lead filmmaker and a lead photographer, who are both fulltime staff and they oversee the art mentoring program, “Voshell says. “We have a paid lead instructor in every class, they oversee the curriculum—ours is pegged to the state visual and performing arts standards—and they come up with everything from the syllabus to our teaching methodologies.”

Voshell manages Venice Arts' exhibitions—those hosted onsite and at other venues, and touring shows—develops related public programs including film screenings, panel discussions, and even workshops for adults. Prior to joining Venice Arts, she was the Staff Writer at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, the Exhibits & Events Board Chair of the Philadelphia Center for the Book, and an Associate Editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. VeniceArts.jpg

She holds an MA in Book Arts from Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London, and an MLA in Visual & Curatorial Studies and a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania. 

“It has a special place for me being here,” Voshell says. “It has been really great for me to witness in the last five years just how vital this program and other programs for kids are. And I grew up New Jersey and I participated in a state-funded photography program, it was a subsidized program where I was able to attend for very low cost and it was a lot like this program where I got my start as an artist. I can also see in myself that after the opportunity I gained the courage and the power to really spark something in young person’s lives and that is the passion I have for our program.“

Voshell went on to college to combine art and photography with writing and book making. She credits the outreach programs like Venice Arts with rising to the task of giving communities the undying support that is vital in urban environments. She has dedicated her career to coordinate for young artists who would be unable to share their work and to develop economically.  Voshell is also teacher, organizer, and mentor—making use of her own creativity with the next generation of Venice Arts’ students ever more as the program grows.

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“In terms of community outreach and opportunity, our program really has worked hard to expand to meet community need,” Voshell says,” “We have adult class offerings and we have an advanced studies component to our mentoring program so not only are the students gaining skills in class, many of them move on into internship programs that lead them to college as well as careers.”

One gallery project dear to Voshell’s heart is titled 1993: Venice Arts Is Born. This gallery, which was exhibited on their website, tells the birth story of Venice Arts from ten kids in a donated basement to their current facility serving hundreds of youth each year. Fostering the biggest dream of all: to create a vibrant arts center for low-income youth. 

Twenty-one years later, VA’s award-winning Art Mentoring & Education program, has reached thousands of low-income youth, providing meaningful, media-based programs that encourage creativity, literacy, and provide at-risk youth with trade media, arts and technology knowledge and skills. 

Venice Arts Mentoring Program

“Free media arts workshops for middle and high school-aged students are in short supply in most urban areas,” Voshell adds. “We have been posting a lot of the student’s past and current multimedia projects on our website, some of these are videos or photographs by students, some are videos of students talking about their experience at Venice Arts.”

Projects vary in style and intensity from a popular comic book design workshop to a changing roster of exhibitions that highlight exemplary documentary photography and new media, to youth-produced video chronicles like I'm A Mom Now.

“The talented artists that we have contributing to the program are just amazing. There are many links to youth projects on our website at venicearts.org. People can go there and see how much our program brings to the community of Venice.” Voshell says. “One of our student filmmakers, Jocelyn, made a film about the challenges her autistic brother Jason faces. Her film, Dear Jason was selected for the 2013 Tower of Youth Festival.”

And upcoming Six Shooters: A Photographic Conversation brings together work by the original Six Shooters - Nancy Baron, Noelle Gilbert, Cat Gwynn, Heidi Lender, Aline Smithson and Ashly Stohl and the current Six Shooters - Nancy Baron, Noelle Gilbert, Cat Gwynn, Bootsy Holler, Aline Smithson and Eleonora Ronconi. The collaborative exhibition weaves a visual narrative based on subject, color, light, gesture, or concept between the artists’ works, which are created through a daily practice of response to one another’s images. The Opening Reception for this collaborative exhibition is Saturday, March 1, 5–8pm showing through Saturday, May 3.

Venice Arts always welcomes new volunteers! Professional photographers, filmmakers, and multimedia artists, as well as art students, are the backbone of any sacred space. Art Mentoring is a wonderful way to share your skills, grow as an educator, and connect with a community of artists interested in working with youth.

Voshell says there is always room for more support as the community need grows. Volunteer opportunities also exist in the gallery, office, or with events. If you are interested in volunteering at Venice Arts, download the appropriate Volunteer Application Form here.

Just recently, Venice Arts found out that Angela (shown sorting through their photographs on the image on this page) won the Gold Award from Young Arts (a National Award) which gives her $10,000 toward her college education. Another student won the Silver for $5,000.00. More proof that Venice Arts mentoring program really works! Check out the full story on their website here.

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