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Anne Kotleba with Viewfinder Kendell Jordan

Anne Kotleba with Viewfinder, Kendell Jordan. Photo by: Brittany Twyman
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Story: Zach Maskavich
Multimedia: Brittany Twyman

In the basement of the Maryland Institute College of Art building on Collington Ave, a group of creative young students gather to channel their inner artist.

The Viewfinders are a group of kids ranging in age from 13 to 17 years old. The group meets Wednesdays after school and every other Saturday afternoon. The Viewfinders are directed by Anne Kotleba, a recent graduate of MICA and a community artist. Before working with the Viewfinders, Kotleba taught art to troubled youth in a detention center. Kotleba also spent time in Biloxi, Miss. post Hurricane Katrina helping to paint murals around the city.

With the help of some graduate students. Kotleba started the Baltimore United Viewfinders program in the fall of 2010 to give the kids a way to spend their time after school in a constructive manner.

“There isn’t really much to do,” Kotleba said. “We aren’t trying to pull the kids away from other groups. This offers more specialized arts as well as leadership.”

The Viewfinders tell the story of East Baltimore through photographs and graphic design.

Along the back wall in the room where the Viewfinders meet are eight Mac computers which are loaded with editing software such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

It took some of the kids longer to master the editing programs than others.

“At first Photoshop is like brain surgery,” said 14-year-old Derrick Smith.

It takes the students time to learn the programs, but sometimes they still need more guidance.

“The majority of the times it might take us a week to learn,” said 13-year-old Kendell Jordan. “Sometimes you might still need the help of Ms. Anne but others times you realize you already know how to do it.”

Once they learn the programs, the kids work at a different pace on their projects. The speed at which they finish may sometimes be linked to their attention spans.

“It takes him like a half hour,” said Smith, pointing to fellow Viewfinder 14-year-old Francis. “I get bored really easily, so I’ll start doing a project and then I’m like ‘oh no, I’m gonna get on YouTube and look up cat fights.’”

The older Viewfinders have so much fun with the projects they do, that some of younger kids around the neighborhood began to take notice wanted to get involved. That’s when Kotleba and the group started the Junior Viewfinders summer camp.

One Junior Viewfinder, Jerrelle, signed up for the program when he 9. Jerrelle is deaf, but that doesn’t matter because the group doesn’t need to communicate verbally, they instead unify over their love of the camera and the arts.

“The camera is a way of communication for us,” said Kotleba. “When I asked his [Jerrelle’s] mother if he could join she said ‘you know he is deaf right?’ I said it doesn’t matter we don’t need words, we have the camera. He is very tech-savvy, he shows me new stuff on the camera and computer all the time and he is 11 years-old.”

Some of the kids have been with the Viewfinders from the start and Kotleba has noticed a change.

“Well physically they’ve grown,” said Kotleba. “The stuff they are creating now, I can see them growing as people and they can see their art can create social change.”

Despite the fun that the kids have each week, not all of them want to grow up to be photographers or graphic designers.

“When I get older I still want to do art and stuff like that, but what I really want to do is be a NASA engineer,” said Smith.

“For me it is fifty-fifty, I want to be an artist but I also want to own my own business,” said Jordan.

If they don’t stick with art as a way to make a living, that is fine with Kotleba.

“If they don’t become artists, graphic designers, or photographers they will still have developed creative and critical thinking that is being cut out of schools,” said Kotleba.

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