Much like an artist blends their own colors, Frederic Sisouvanh is creating his perfect hue helping at-risk youth discover art through his passion project, The Humble Telescopes. As a life coach at Families First by day, Frederic pours all his leftover energy towards workshops that empower the kids he works with, alongside youth at Covenant House, Chris 180 (formerly Chris KIDS), and Nicholas House.
Workshops through The Humble Telescopes aren’t your run-of-the-mill field trips to the High Museum or a stroll through Krog Tunnel, but these aren’t your typical kids. From video shoots with artists like Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane, mock-interviews with the production company Motion Family, and learning the importance of civic engagement at rallies for Bernie Sanders and John Lewis, these kids are seeing Atlanta’s culture through a new lens.
As the late summer sun stretched out over the horizon, Frederic described the meaning behind the name Humble Telescopes – charitable and modest pillars of the community willing to go above and beyond the call of duty. Little did Frederic realize that he’s talking about himself. We settled in at Condesa Coffee and he humbly told us his journey.
What is The Humble Telescopes and why did you launch this initiative?
The project itself was born out of the frustration I felt while interning at a nonprofit for which, of course, will remain nameless. While hired to assist in the organization’s yearly gala and compounded by the shifts within the organization, I found myself relegated to meaningless tasks. I took it upon myself to create a means of engaging with the population served through that which inspired me – art. Thus came the idea of THT. The success of our first workshop created a wave of interest internally within the organization and gave way to those who refused to support initially to try and capitalize on our hard work. While I struggled with the idea of giving into their demands, Ryan Vizzions sat me down and encouraged me to take notice of my worth, insisting it was the organization who needed us more than we needed them. Since then, THT has remained completely autonomous, curating 9 workshops which benefitted 3 of our city’s most prominent youth-serving organizations: Covenant House, Families First, and Chris Kids, with Nicholas House participating in this season’s events.
The workshops created through Humble Telescopes are to address the disparities in access and exposure to art while also nurturing the psychological and self-fulfillment needs of the participating youth. A lot of youth serving organizations are bound to their donors and catering to the immediate needs of the patrons they serve, and this is more or less a supplement to their services.
Art in itself is more accessible today especially with projects like Forward Warrior and Living Walls where they have murals erected throughout the city. People may not have interests in art but they are subconsciously brought into that culture. That’s the beauty of the mural art movement in my eyes and that work informed what I’m doing now. I’m trying to change the relationship between the kids in group homes and the environment of the city while encouraging them to explore their creative side. When I’m driving through the city with these boys, they have no idea who these artists are, but if I’m able to provide context for them through these workshops, it changes their relationship with their environment. So they could drive through the city and say, “yo, this is a Peter Ferrari piece or that’s a Mr.Totem piece.”
What has your work inspired? What events have the youth you work with experienced?
Through my work, I’ve been able to inspire others to do similar work. On top of the workshops that Humble Telescopes has provided, my friend Sarah Kim spearheaded a professional development program in collaboration with me entitled D.I.M.E ( Do it Myself Experience). She was working closely with a production crew, Motion Family. They do a lot of prominent rap music videos in Atlanta and specialize in video, photography, and artist branding. Sarah was working as the art director on the video shoots and we collaborated on a professional development program that would allow the youth we worked with to gain real-life experience within a creative field. We sat the boys down from Families First’s Morris Rd. Cooperative and drafted resumes, conducted mock interviews and sent their resumes out to the CEOs of Motion Family. The exposure of going through the interview process was vital.
They also got to participate in two video shoots, one with Gucci Mane and Rae Sremmurd with the song “Black Beatles” which has since gone viral as it has been used in the social media driven mannequin challenge. They also assisted in the video “Spend It” with Dae Dae. It was a big deal. Outside of that, I’ve been trying to get the boys at the group home more civically engaged by getting them acquainted with the political process. I’ve taken them to direct action protests, I took them to meet John Lewis and to their first political rally. I also took them to the Bernie Sanders rally at Morehouse College. My relationship with these boys pushed my need to do these Humble Telescope events. I wasn’t paid anything, it was taxing in the sense that I’d work on my days off and coordinate with organizations, coordinate with the photographer who was in charge of documenting the process, but it was so rewarding. These workshops give me purpose, give me drive.
How many kids have you helped overall through these workshops?
Probably around 40 to 50 kids, but steadily 10 to 15 that have been at every event. At the end of the day I could strive to impact the world, but I feel the impact as more identifiable with a smaller group of kids based on the continuity and consistency of the service.
What are your future plans, including your upcoming fundraiser?
I recently picked up work with Humble Telescopes again and wrote a grant through the Whitehead Foundation and received $1200 to commission a childhood hero of mine, Mr. Totem. I got him to do a mural at Families First’s Morris Rd Cooperative – that was the culmination of everything I’ve been working towards. Gaining the fiscal sponsorship has also broadened our perspective on where we want to take the organization. Before it was more free-form workshops. The workshops were conducted under the discretion of the artists and what they were willing to contribute. With the fiscal sponsorship, I want to make it a more integrated and collaborative process between the youth participating and the artists themselves.
The fundraiser will include the documentary Wall Writers and it’s an account of graffiti in its infancy. It gives a behind the scenes glimpse and the key players. It touches on the political climate at the time and what would drive people to write on walls. It’s inspiring that these marginalized communities felt voiceless at times and used writing to bring attention to the prevailing social issues happening in their communities.
I don’t condone illegal graffiti but I condone creativity.There’s a narrative going on in Atlanta right now with street art vs. graffiti. A lot of street artwork is being commissioned work and are legal walls. The Forward Warrior project is legally funded graffiti-informed work, but not necessarily ‘graffiti’ as many see it, so there is a cultural clash there. I’m trying to bridge that gap too.
The two artists participating in the Q&A are legendary graffiti artists, Mr. Totem and Dr. Dax. After the movie screening which acts as more or less a means of raising awareness for the project itself, I am going to embark on a crowdfunding campaign. I’m shooting to make $3000 dollars. I’ve set up a budget where I can pay artists 400-500 dollars to incentivize them to have a more fully-formed curriculum when they engage with youth.
Rather than just a workshop where they are demoing their process, I want it to be more educational. I want to have actual curriculum developed. I’ve assembled a group of 8-10 artists who are waiting for me to give the okay and we’ll start building from there. Ultimately, I want to take it outside of simple workshops and have a brick and mortar similarly designed to WonderRoot, but catering specifically to the at-risk youth population. That’s my five-year plan.
You’re shuffling a full-time job and a side hustle. What keeps you going and what’s your advice for others?
I feel like I’m responsible for having a stake in what goes on in the City of Atlanta. I can contribute to the betterment of the community, so I encourage people to find a nonprofit of their choice whether it’s working with youth or community gardens. Whatever inspires you, just get engaged. At the end of the day, we are responsible for the wellbeing of everyone.
Photo Creds: Ryan Vizzions