“What's the difference between facts and insults, right?” Jibz Cameron asks a small class of teenagers inside UCLA's Hillel Center on a recent Thursday afternoon.
Cameron, better known as the performance artist Dynasty Handbag, has given a small group of students a deceptively simple task: one volunteer will describe a family member in exceptional detail and the others must draw the person. It's an assignment based in fact, but even those are hard to give when the person is family. What do you say when a simple descriptive detail, like an article of clothing, could be subject to mocking?
Cameron has given this prompt to students before. “It's always laden with all these feelings,” she says after class. “But, really, they're not saying anything at all negative, they're just describing what they see visually.”
The students, who are between the ages of 15 and 18, traveled here from across the U.S. to participate in YoungArts Los Angeles. Established in 1981 by late Carnival Cruise Lines founder Ted Arison and wife Lin, National YoungArts Foundation is a series of programs aimed toward exceptionally talented, mostly high school students from myriad artistic disciplines. Their competitive and prestigious programs have churned out a long list of alumni who have gone on to become stars in their disciplines. One example: Doug Aitken, the renowned installation artist who has recently been earning praise, and maybe even a bit of viral fame, for Mirage House, the mirrored house he created as part of the Desert X exhibition.
No doubt, the teens in Cameron's class have oodles of potential, but they're still pre-career artists; some of the older ones are figuring out where they will attend college next year. While they may have an idea of what kind of art they like to make, there's still a lot of time for them to figure out their practice.
“There's a pretty diverse range of interests,” says L.A.-based artist Mariah Garnett, who also serves as the visual arts co-director for YoungArts Los Angeles. Garnett recalls from her own time as a student that high school artists tend to spend more time working on drawing and painting skills. It may not be until college that they'll discover an interest in disciplines like performance art, but YoungArts can give the attendees a window into what else is out there. Sure, they have the chance to show off their own work, but they're also here to connect with peers and study with some highly accomplished teachers. Earlier in the day, the visual arts team met with interdisciplinary artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle and made poetry-centric pieces with Matthew Clifford Green. “I wanted to work with artists who could help unlock other potentials in an art practice,” Garnett says of this year's curriculum.
That's where a class like Cameron's comes in handy. After a round of introductions, Cameron played one of her recent works, a video called D-Bag Makeup Tutorial for Life Under Fascism. Drawing from two popular genres of YouTube videos — the makeup tutorial and the confessional — Cameron, as her altar ego Dynasty Handbag, explores her feelings about the then-incoming Trump administration while smearing makeup all over her face. Her face contorts and her voice changes, adopting and dropping different accents, rising in tone until she sounds almost like a cartoon demon. Meanwhile, the makeup changes hues, from bright shades of blue, green and yellow to black and red as her word grow angrier. It's funny, but it's also a raw and real expression of fear and anger about an uncertain political future.
Soon, Cameron has the students working on their caricatures. It's the little things in the volunteers' descriptions, like a mom's penchant for capri pants and Crocs sandals or a younger brother's oversized water jug and Barcelona soccer-supporting shirts, that make the portrait. But it's also the details that make this an experiment in dealing with the awkwardness of art. Will your family get upset that you just mentioned all these details to a group of near-strangers? Probably, was what the two volunteers in this class assumed.
Caricatures can be done with reverence and that was apparent in the work of student artists Clara Collins and Austin Abistado. “You don't want to offend them,” says Abistado, an 18-year-old student artist from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I really wanted to give each one the personality that was being described and try to give it an attitude and make it recognizable beyond the physical characteristics,” explains Collins, an 18-year-old senior at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles.
“I just wanted to make it to be as funny as possible,” says Abistado.
The exaggerated clothing and accessories have a comic effect. Abistado made someone's pet cat cartoonishly large and amped-up the attack pose of a small chihuahua. Cameron says she likes to check out the way students draw cats and dogs. “As a suggestion of a thing, it's really identifiable,” she says, ” but it's really personal to the person making it.”
For the students, whose time with YoungArts Los Angeles began with orientation on Tuesday and would culminate with an art show that Sunday, this was the middle of an intense but rewarding week of work, and Cameron's class gave them the opportunity to tap into their creativity in a different way. ” I really respect art that's the purest expression of self,” says Collins, whose own work has been focused on fashion sculptures. Cameron gave the students a chance to do just that with their final assignment of the 90-minute session when she asked them to write profiles styled like the ones you might find on a dating site. Here they were told to answer questions as “your most fantastic self.” Gender could be anything. Body type could be anything too; you didn't need to use human characteristics to describe yourself. In the end, it became something of a Mad Libs game. After class, Cameron explained, “It's a way to challenge how 'society' asks us to categorize ourselves.”
Throughout the class, though, there seems to be one other thing that Cameron is doing. Near the end of the caricature assignment, she explains that, while they might not think their families are interesting subject matter, they are to the people who hear the details. “It is really interesting,” she stresses to the class, adding that artists, like comedians, draw upon these seemingly mundane facts to create work. On that level, Cameron is teaching them an extremely valuable lesson: how to make the ordinary extraordinary.