On Monday, September 15, the Cheyenne River Youth Project® formally dedicated the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park at its East Lincoln Street campus in Eagle Butte. The innovative new park, whose name means “Winter Count” in the Lakota language, is a free, safe, public art space that will allow artists — residents and visitors alike — and community members to express their own unique voices and life experiences through graffiti art and traditional painting.

On hand for the dedication were documentarian Sara Johnson Levy and artist Aaron “Amp” Pearcy from About This Life Inc., a Rapid City, South Dakota-based organization dedicated to traveling around the world, using the arts to provide a source of hope and inspiration. While on site, Amp worked on a live piece for the park, deepening the impact of this special occasion; he painted side by side with local youth, who eagerly tackled the fresh outdoor canvases.

“We’re honored that Sara and Amp were able to attend the dedication,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “And we’re incredibly excited for the future — watching the art park develop and evolve, of course, but also expanding our collaborative efforts with About This Life, Rapid City’s Art Alley, and the greater arts community here in South Dakota.”

Levy said ATL was interested in the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park from the very beginning.

“When we heard about the CRYP art park being built, we knew we wanted to help somehow,” she said. “We contacted Julie, and immediately we could feel her drive and passion to make the art park a reality.”

As a not-for-profit organization, ATL collaborates with groups that are trying to make a positive impact in their communities. Graffiti art / street art is the preferred medium for communicating these positive messages and missions.

“We were honored to be included in CRYP’s special day,” Levy said. “Personally, the moment I saw those kids pick up cans of spray paint and begin to paint, I got goosebumps of excitement. This place gives them an outlet that’s positive. That’s extremely important and powerful.

“We are now proud to call Julie Garreau a friend, and CRYP a collaborative partner for many exciting projects down the road,” she added.

Rapid City artist Tyler “Siamese” Read noted that the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park is much more than an art space. On the dedication day, in a note Julie Garreau read to the assembled company, he reminded all present to remember the bigger picture.

“You’re creating opportunity, and giving people a voice,” he advised. “A space like this can change a person’s life, if they take that opportunity and find their voice, and I am living proof of that.”

In nine years’ time, he explained, a public art space transformed him from a graffiti vandal into the arts education outreach coordinator for the Rapid City Arts Council, and programs chair on the board of directors for the American Advertising Federation of the Black Hills. 

“This was achieved without a college education,” he said. “It was all because of the work I did in a public art space (Art Alley). It’s because of that space that I learned the value of community, and since then, I have created successful arts programing in Rapid City that has reached what was an entirely unreachable demographic for the RCAC. I can reach people through this space from every walk of life in a way that I never could in any other circumstance, and in doing so, we’ve changed the course of (others’ lives). That’s the power that this place holds. It will not always be easy, but it will always be worth it.”

The 25-year-old youth project’s staff members are even getting in on the action, inspired by the creative work taking shape in Waniyetu Wowapi. On Friday, October 10, they will participate in an “Art of Creative Lettering” workshop at the Cokata Wiconi teen center. Leading the class: accomplished Minneapolis-based graffiti artist Peyton Scott Russell, who first came to the Cheyenne River reservation last May to teach a five-day “Art of Creative Lettering” course for local youth at the Cokata Wiconi teen center. The resulting youth art show provided the foundation for what would become the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park.

Peyton (he is known professionally by just his first name) noted that most people think of vandalism and tagging when they think of graffiti. He said the murals he creates (he’s responsible for the “Lakota Style” mural on the side of Eagle Butte’s defunct Main Street bowling alley), and the artwork produced by the young people he teaches, reveal that the art form is so much more than that.

“Graffiti has something deeper, from an artistic standpoint,” noted Peyton, an Art Institute of Chicago alum who was admitted to the prestigious school due to his unique graffiti work. “There’s another intent: to improve society through the medium. Not to destroy or vandalize, but to create… (it’s) about telling stories, about seeing your environment in the canvas. That’s the greatest appeal of street art, of graffiti art.”

Garreau said she’s thrilled that she, and the rest of the staff, will have a chance to learn the artistic medium for themselves.

“The workshop will give us a deeper understanding of the art form, for sure, but it also will provide a means to understand our kids a little bit better,” she said. “This is how they choose to express themselves. It’s how they tell their stories, and reveal their truth. For 25 years, we’ve known that we have to evolve with each generation so we can best meet their needs. This is a logical next step for us.”

She also advised that CRYP is still seeking funds to support the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park, as staff will need to maintain the existing art structures as well as build new ones. Those interested in making a contribution can sponsor a section of the art park by making a tax-deductible donation. Those funds will be used to purchase all necessary materials. Online donations can be made at https://www.crowdrise.com/crypartpark/fundraiser/lakotayouth. For more information, call the CRYP headquarters at (605) 964-8200.

The Cheyenne River Youth Project, founded in 1988, is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future through a wide variety of culturally sensitive and enduring programs, projects and facilities that ensure strong, self-sufficient families and communities.