This summer, the Cheyenne River Youth Project concluded its second Lakota Art Fellowship at its Waniyetu Wowapi (Winter Count) Institute. Fellow Julia Lesmeister officially graduated from the program on July 21, and on Aug. 14, she celebrated her 16th birthday.
CRYP created the Lakota Art Fellowship in 2019 so it could provide opportunities for teens on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation who have an interest in pursuing careers in the arts, and who have completed multiple internships through the nonprofit youth project’s dedicated art institute. Since then, the innovative nine-month program has been making waves in Indian Country — and beyond.
“We’ve always done groundbreaking work at CRYP, because we understand that we have to meet the kids where they are and let them guide us,” explained Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “That means taking risks, from our initial spray-paint classes and the opening of our art park to the launch of the RedCan invitational graffiti jam and the development of our Waniyetu Wowapi Institute.
“With the Lakota Art Fellowship, we’ve created the framework we need to engage and empower young people in both art and Lakota culture,” she continued. “Those young people learn to find and use their voice through art and creative expression, and to serve as culture bearers. At its heart, this is so much more than youth programming. It’s community development.”
After taking a year off due to Covid, CRYP relaunched the fellowship program in fall 2021. Julia Lesmeister said she heard about the program from a friend and decided to give it a try.
“I’ve been doing art as long as I can remember,” the Cheyenne-Eagle Butte High School student explained. “I got into it just to test it out and see how I liked it, and then I just fell in love with it. My favorite kind of art is spray painting. It’s so cool, especially with the graffiti art that goes on during RedCan. It’s so inspirational.”
During CRYP’s 8th annual RedCan invitational graffiti jam on July 6-9, Lesmeister helped younger kids working on art activities in the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park. She assisted several of RedCan’s featured artists — TamiJoy, Rezmo, Yukue, 179, and Lucious — at a collaborative mural honoring indigenous women. She also had an opportunity to sketch her own piece of original artwork and spray it onto a wall in the art park.
“Julia is an extremely intelligent and talented young woman,” said Wakinyan Chief, CRYP’s art manager. “She was very respectful and helpful to our staff during her fellowship. She often would arrive hours early to work on her projects, and she was always a great participant to have in our classes and workshops.
“We know that Julia will succeed at anything she puts her mind and energy toward achieving,” he continued. “We are all very proud of her, and we were grateful to have such a wonderful young woman in our program.”
During each Lakota Art Fellowship, teens work closely with art instructors and mentors from the Lakota Nation and across the country to develop their skills in a variety of disciplines. These include graffiti art, digital arts, traditional arts, stenciling, graphic arts, and screen printing. In addition, they have valuable opportunities to learn about the business side of art, with classes that include public speaking, entrepreneurship, financial literacy and merchandising.
“They also are able to explore the impact of public art through first-hand experiences,” said Jerica Widow, CRYP’s programs director. “During the fellowship, we give our participants opportunities to visit art institutions and public art installations in other communities. This allows them to see how public art can lead to engagement, empowerment, and healing — and they learn how their own creativity and youth leadership can make a difference here on Cheyenne River.”
CRYP staff is currently accepting applications and developing the curriculum for the third Lakota Art Fellowship, which is scheduled to begin in September.
To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project and its programs, and for information about making donations and volunteering, call (605) 964-8200 or visit www.lakotayouth.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
The Cheyenne River Youth Project is dedicated to giving our Lakota youth and families access to the culturally relevant, enriching, and enduring opportunities we need to build stronger, healthier communities and a more vibrant future together.