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Student Artists Explore Homelessness In Dear Mayor Hancock PlatteForum Exhibit

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On a hazy Thursday evening, fifteen-year-old Xanayia McKinney sits in front of a large Mac computer screen learning how to edit video for the first time. It’s just two weeks before showtime, but you wouldn’t know it from the calm and composed energy of the artists. McKinney and five other North High School students involved in the Mi Casa program have been spending two evenings a week at PlatteForum with resident artist Sarah Gerard, working on the multimedia exhibit dubbed Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do?

The question has been posed not just by members of Denver’s growing homeless population, but by many residents around town; the exhibit will articulate it through a variety of mediums, including video and collage. “I hope he acknowledges that he knows that this is happening and that he’s doing something about it,” McKinney says of Mayor Michael Hancock as she goes through clips of an interview she conducted with her friend Stephanie, who is homeless.

“I already knew her because I’m a street child,” McKinney says, explaining that she spends more time downtown on the streets than at home, even if she’s not homeless herself.
PlatteForum, a Denver nonprofit, hosts running residency-based programs that increase youth access to art and artists. “When we started talking about homelessness and looking at stories in the news,” Gerard remembers, “right away [the students] were starting to ask really smart questions, and they had insightful ideas.” The New York-based artist came to Denver for the six-week residency, directing the teens on solo and collaborative projects that include video interviews, a 3-D installation, and a zine compiling comics, collage and written stories.

Eighteen-year-old Jessee Hall is putting together a fort with materials the kids collected from former encampment sites. “You need a strong foundation,” he says, as he uses bungee cords to put pieces of wood together into a teepee-shaped structure. “This may shake,” he admits, as he jiggles the boards, “but it’s pretty sturdy.”
“I’m hoping we can be a voice for homeless people in the city to help them,” Hall continues, “instead of street-sweeping them.” The eighteen-year-old advocate is not a fan of this city's sweeps. “Where else are they going to live, the sewer?”

McKinney wants the artwork to demonstrate the reality of being homeless to viewers and the mayor. “Even if [Hancock] can’t get them into homes,” she says, “he can get them into a place where they are safe, warm, and have the proper necessities to live.”

Hancock has been invited to the exhibit's opening at noon, December 17, at PlatteForum.  “We want the kids to know that art can be an amazing vehicle to get the answers we want,” says Rebecca Vaughan, artistic and programming director for PlatteForum. (Mayor Hancock’s team has spoken with Gerard about homelessness in Denver, the artist says, but he has yet to commit to attending the exhibit.)

But no matter what happens at the opening — which has been slated for noon to 3 p.m. to accommodate both the students' schedules and that of the homeless people featured in the show, who will need to leave to line up for their places at the city's shelters by 5 p.m. — the young artists plan to stay involved in the issue. So will Gerard, who will continue studying homelessness around the nation after her residency concludes with this show.

Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do? opens with a reception from noon to 3 Saturday, December 17, and runs through Friday, December 23, at Platteforum, 2400 Curtis Street. Find more information here.

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