What to do tonight: The Mattress Factory will be showcasing artwork of kids and teens

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Everything was going along smoothly for the kids taking part in this summer's art program at the Mattress Factory until the day when an interactive piece in the lobby of the North Side museum was removed.

The young students, ages 7 to 12, didn't like that. Not one bit.

"The kids were upset. So the artist-instructors showed them how to express their disappointment through creating posters and making music," said Lindsay O'Leary, the museum's communications and digital media manager. "They created a spontaneous protest. It was one of those classes where I was like, 'Man, I wish I was 7.'"

There were four, two-week classes this season, three for youngsters and another -- the Factory 14s -- for teens. Each free class explored creativity from a North-Side-Mattress-Factory kind of perspective.

Tonight, all of us are invited to sample the Summer ArtLab Showcase, to view examples of their work and to meet the young artists.

Not all of the art was born of protest. But there were challenges. Fun challenges.

"I sat in a few sessions of the Utopia class, and the kids were honestly smiling ear to ear the entire morning," Ms. O'Leary said. "Each class has a different theme, and that class's theme was to be the change you wish to see in the world. The kids learned how to stand up for what they think, show what they think through art.

"The object is letting the kids know that classic art -- what you think of traditionally as being art, beautiful paintings hanging on the wall -- has a place in our culture, for sure, but there are a million different ways to express yourself creatively, and that can be art as well."

The program, just concluding its eighth year, brings artists in to work with the students, about half of whom live on the North Side. Each class had about a dozen kids.

"We wanted kids to learn about the history of our museum and the neighborhood and open our doors a little more to the youth," Ms. O'Leary said of the free program. "We keep the classes pretty small, so the instructors have a lot of one-on-one time with each kid and their ideas."

So one of the classes was Utopia. Another was The Power of Play. The third, led by artist Heather White, was Super Hero Snack Time, and involved capes made out of old T-shirts.

The teenagers, Ms. O'Leary said, worked with artist Jeremy Boyle, taking different views of technology.

"One of their first projects was to take a stack of newspapers and make some kind of structure that they could sit in," she said. "By something as simple as rolling up a sheet of newspaper and making tubes, they created a kind of geodesic dome. It was like this crazy tent in our lobby and there were nine of them sitting inside this dome."

Finally, newspapers are good for something.

Felice Cleveland, the museum's director of education, said the summer program helps the Mattress Factory, which was founded in 1977, spread its roots and grow on the North Side.

"What we do is a little bit on the edge, so it's important to figure out ways that we can engage our community," she said. "When students spend an extended period of time here, they begin to feel a sense of ownership over the museum. They feel comfortable here. They are the ones that continue to come back for our programming, they want to be involved, they tell other people what we do.

"A big part of our educational mission is not to teach people how to be artists, but to teach people how to talk about art, how to appreciate art. That's how you start: By opening the door and inviting people in to have a conversation to be creative and by building creative confidence."

Part of the program's success, she said, can be measured by the young people who have returned again and again to the museum. In fact, one of this summer's teachers was a student eight years ago.

"It comes full circle," Ms. Cleveland said. "We found that half the people who participated said they hadn't been to the museum before, and they all said they'd come back."

If it's time for you to come back, drop in at the Mattress Factory at 500 Sampsonia Way between 6 and 8 tonight. Meet the artists, their proud parents and the artist-instructors.

"The kids are very willing to talk," Ms. O'Leary said. "This is most likely the first art opening for each of these kids, and they're eager to show the public what they've been doing and how to do it. It's refreshing."

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