CRYP’s inaugural art internship program is in full swing. Later this month, acclaimed Minneapolis-based artist and art instructor Peyton Scott Russell will travel to the CRYP campus to teach the first of three graffiti art workshops; 10 art interns will be participating in the workshop, which is scheduled for Thursday and Friday, March 27-28 at the Cokata Wiconi (“Center of Life”) teen center.

The three 2015 workshops are part of the artist’s innovative “Art of Creative Lettering” course. Peyton (as he is known professionally) said the course allows students to explore graffiti as a fine art form, to define their own distinct identities and personas, to articulate the stories they want to tell, and to create something new and positive with what they’ve learned.

“This first workshop will focus on drawing letters,” he said. “People may not realize how difficult letter designs can be, the precision you need. But the great thing is that there are no limitations. You aren’t bound by rules, yet the end result is artistic. It’s why I love it so much, why it’s unique.

“The kids will learn to develop their own relationships with letters, because through the letters, they’ll reveal their culture and their own personalities,” he continued. “Those things always show up, in everything you do. Your letters are your fingerprint. We want to really pull that out — why are your letters this way or that way? How does the experience of your life show up in your art?”

CRYP staff members already have participated in similar workshops with Peyton, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and current Bush Fellow, who first came to the Cheyenne River reservation in May 2014 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 5-acre Waniyetu Wowapi (“Winter Count”) Art Park later in the year.

“Peyton’s arrival last year was a catalyst for us,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “Not only did he introduce our staff and many of our teens to graffiti art and produce the ‘Lakota Style’ mural that appears on the side of Eagle Butte’s old bowling alley, the art show he put together opened our eyes to what a public art space could be.”

According to Garreau, that directly led to the development of Waniyetu Wowapi and the idea of hosting a graffiti jam that would attract artists from around the country.

“Peyton is one of the organizers of our RedCan event, which is scheduled for July 8-9 at Waniyetu Wowapi and July 11 at Rapid City’s Art Alley,” she said. “It’s really thanks to him and his educational curriculum that we have been able to see what this art form can do for our youth, and what a free public art space can do for our community.”

Garreau said that CRYP staff is eager to provide all of these new experiences to their first-ever art internship cohort.

“Too many people still think that the purpose of graffiti is to vandalize or destroy,” she observed. “There’s an assumption that it’s inherently negative, something done by gang members intent on ‘tagging.’ It’s simply not true. I’ve learned that there is another intent — to create, to tell stories, to find your own identity, to express yourself, and to reveal your own truth. There’s a sense of freedom in it, and that really resonates with our kids here on Cheyenne River. They’re drawn to this art form, and really, it’s a great equalizer.”

She also noted that there is a community leadership component to graffiti art, particularly through initiatives like free public art spaces. Late last year, CRYP joined that global movement with Waniyetu Wowapi.

“We dedicated Waniyetu Wowapi last September,” she said. “Our vision was to create a place where Cheyenne River residents and guests of all ages could express themselves freely and openly. It gives people a much-needed creative outlet, to be sure, but it also enhances our community pride. It’s an inspirational place where magic is happening all the time, and we’re hoping it boosts tourism and tourist-related economic activity.”

According to Garreau, Peyton will be returning in late May for the second “Art of Creative Lettering” workshop, which will focus on paper collage. The final workshop will take place in June and will address the use of aerosol in graffiti art.

“We’re excited to see how the kids react to all of this,” Garreau said. “Longtime graffiti artists often say how graffiti has changed or even saved their lives. This art form is transformational, and it can open doors to other opportunities. That’s why we believe so strongly that the art initiatives taking place here at CRYP are the right thing at the right time for our young people.”

This spring’s art interns are Justin Cook-Twite, 17, Jacine Carter, 16, Fentress Cromwell, 16, John Chavez, 15, Tylaina Dupris, 14, Jaymalee Turning Heart, 14, Kellyn Circle Eagle, 14, Sappire Lucero, 13, Miranda Vines, 13, and Xandria Norris, 13. During their four-month internship program, the teens will participate in training opportunities, engage in open studio time, attend leadership development workshops, explore career opportunities for artists, plan community events to promote the Waniyetu Wowapi (“Winter Count”) Art Park, and unveil their own work within that public space when it’s ready.

The art interns must complete 80 hours of instruction during February, March, April and May to complete the program. Upon successful completion in June, they’ll each receive a $500 award for their time and commitment. Then, they will be able to celebrate their accomplishments by joining accomplished professional graffiti artists from around the country at RedCan in July.

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.