From ballet to theatre, Anya Shakla and Kathryn Lau have been involved in the arts for as long as they can remember–– but as two artists of color in a predominantly white field, they haven’t always seen themselves reflected in their more senior mentors. Throughout high school, their further immersion into artistic spaces prompted them to ask why this was; and more importantly, how to fix it. After spending much of their sophomore year bouncing around ideas, they came up with what would, in 2019, officially become The Colorization Collective: a Seattle-based organization empowering teen artists of color through social media resources and individualized mentorship programs.
One of The Colorization Collective’s hallmark initiatives is their YouTube series Refocus, which highlights the stories of minority artists who are deeply passionate about their craft. Watching an interview, the viewer feels as if they are sitting across the table from the storyteller, immersed in their experiences. In less than ten minutes, playwright Sofia Dominguez transports us into the world of her award-winning “Estrella,” and dancer Kaylyn Ready inspires us to want to learn a bit of hip-hop too. The series is truly a great resource for youth who feel at a loss for representation, aided in part by its audiovisual format, which Kathryn admits was an intentional choice. Though The Colorization Collective’s website has a blog–– and quite an extensive one at that, with their first post from June 2019–– both Kathryn and Anya saw the importance of letting their interviewee’s voices come through in full for this particular series.
“There’s something different about reading an interview and watching an interview,” Kathryn tells us. “Having [each artist’s] story told through their own voice and own style of storytelling was important to us.”
The Collective also makes a point to engage directly with youth creatives who are perhaps more hesitant about their art. Their mentorship programs encourage teen artists of color to feel more confident about the art form they practice, be it visual or performing-based, and have run for two consecutive summers thus far–– with an additional cohort planned to meet this winter. During the five-week program, teens are given the opportunity to connect with experienced professionals in an individualized setting, and learn the need-to-knows about their craft. In full-group meetings, they learn everything from perfecting an elevator pitch to opening a studio and managing it full-time. Later on in the summer, they’re invited to put their learning into action, whether that be by sharing some work at a local exhibition or performing at the Seattle nonprofit TeenTix’s annual Teeny Awards, a celebration of local art and activists.
“Seeing the growth of the artists was really powerful,” says Anya. ‘“Coming in, there were some who were more hesitant about sharing their artwork, [but] throughout the mentorship, they got opportunities they might not have otherwise had [that allowed them to] get a large recognition and appreciation for their work.”
Kathryn agrees. “Something that was really special about our mentorship cohort was that mentors wouldn’t try to teach one universal curriculum. [Instead] they would focus on developing each artist’s individual style. Being able to see that progression, of [the youth artists] realizing more of what their individual style is within the larger arts world, is really unique and gratifying.”
Like many organizations, however, the co-founders have faced some challenges in their journey. When the pandemic began, they were forced to pivot their first summer mentorship program–– and the succeeding one–– from in-person to virtual sessions. Anya described the new layout as “both a blessing and a curse,” citing increased geographical diversity as an unexpected benefit. Because program participants weren’t required to live in Seattle, they were able to provide opportunities to new audiences, with a mentee even attending from Saudi Arabia.
And even from behind a screen, the enthusiasm of participants never ceased. “The mentors were really excited to be part of this, because it was something that they hadn’t seen before. The teens were really excited to be part of this, because this experience, being in an all person of color space, wasn’t something they had been part of before. And the audience was really excited,” says Anya. It was the best trifecta they could have asked for–– though they certainly wouldn’t complain if given the chance to return to in-person programming.
Moving forward, Anya and Kathryn are excited for the future of The Collective, and hope to continue inspiring others through their organization and activism. To young artists struggling to find their path, they say, don’t give up.
“There’s a lot of ways to get to success,” says Kathryn. “Success doesn’t mean book deal at fifteen, success doesn’t mean Broadway debut at seventeen; it’s individual to each person. Hard work is going to get you really, really far.”
“There are 332 million people in this country. There’s going to be someone out there who likes what you’re doing,” Anya adds.
At the end of the day, however, art is more than a profession. Though both Anya and Kathryn plan to continue their artistic studies down the line, what they both love most about art is its ability to bring people together.
“Art has to be genuine. It’s there because you want it to be there,” says Kathryn. “At its core, it’s about connecting with people, connecting with yourself, and telling stories.”