Lesley Cho Newman is a ringleader for Art in Reality, or AIR, which has offered alternative arts and exercise courses for kids between the ages of 14 and 21 for the last six years. The current class will present Keepin' It Real, a performance of new music, choreography, poems and art at 6:30 p.m. next Thursday, Dec. 9, at the Muse Center for the Arts, 516 N. Sixth Ave. For more info, call Newman or her co-conspirator, Ruth Marblestone, at 882-8912.

What is Art in Reality all about?

Art in Reality is a visual arts and movement program for 14 to 21 year olds. Our classes are free, and we are sponsored and funded by both the city of Tucson's Parks and Recreation Department, as well as Pima County Youth Services. So it's a city- and county-funded program.

What do you guys do?

This semester, we're offering classes in break dancing, DJ school and aerosol art. We have an inside-out poetry program--half of the poetry classes are at Pima Vocational High School, and the other are in the juvenile detention center. It's basically a program where the poets anonymously write to one another, and they discuss all the same topics, so it's like the youth on the outside will be representing and reading for the kids in juvenile detention at the show. It's through the library's Tucson Writers Project. We have jewelry, pottery and printmaking classes.

We have yoga, belly dance, martial arts and capoeria, which is an Afro-Brazilian martial art. We offer elective and P.E. credit for kids in charter schools, because a lack of funding prohibits a lot of them from offering interesting courses. A lot of times, kids have to go to a gym to get their P.E. credit, so they're riding on a stationary bike and not interacting with other kids and certainly not getting anything that they're interested in. So we offer them credit, and that's worked out individually with schools.

We also offer community service--kids can take our classes for community service if it's approved by the probation officer in the juvenile justice system.

It sounds like you work with a lot of at-risk kids.

Yes. Basically, anybody between the ages of 14 and 21 can take our classes. But we recruit in a lot of charter schools and recreation centers. We generally target kids who have little or no access to the arts. That's a lot of the kids in alternative school situations.

About how many kids have gone through this program?

We serve approximately 1,000 kids a year. This fall session, we had about 325 kids sign up for our program.

What will we see at Keepin' It Real?

What you'll see is all of the classes performing and exhibiting their work. It's off the hook, because it's pure, raw energy. It's not like super-polished, but all of the classes are skill-building, because they go on for 10 weeks, and it's usually held twice a week--so these kids are learning choreography or whatever that's going build for a piece for the show or a performance for the show. So there's going to be dance, martial arts, yoga, prints and jewelry. The DJs are going to perform; they basically form a DJ orchestra that weaves through the show. And the poets weave through the show. They come in and out between the acts. It's totally free, and families are welcome. Kids are running around screaming, and it's fine, because it's so loud anyway. It's a raucous event.

How did this organization get started?

The city's Parks and Recreation Department was basically trying to figure out why a certain population of youth do not take their leisure classes. And they hired a woman named Jen Sandler, who's an incredibly dynamic person, to find out why this was happening. And she basically went to one of the schools at the Quincie Douglas Center, the Oasis Alternative School, and the kids said, "We don't like the classes." And half the kids didn't even know Parks and Rec offered classes. And a lot of them couldn't afford it. A lot of them didn't have transportation. A lot of them had kids. And so they don't have the luxury of taking anything beyond what is absolutely necessary in school. And a lot of these kids are from really tight neighborhoods where they don't feel comfortable going to other neighborhoods, and they wouldn't go somewhere where they didn't know people.

So Jen said, "Instead of making kids come to us, why don't we bring some stuff to them?" So she offered some classes at Quincie Douglas. I think she started off with African dance, poetry and pottery. It was during the school day; they were offered credit for it, and it grew out of that.

When Jen and I met, I was working at Pima County Youth Services, and she and I immediately hit it off. Then Pima County infused money into the program with youth development money. Since she and I were both really hooked into the artist community, it just grew and grew.

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