When guests make their way through Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, they are often immersed in the world of the wild west.
However, one current exhibit offered a more contemporary version of the once wild west.
The “Kids in Focus: A New Lens on Life” exhibit features photographs of locally grown plants, Western sculptures and children frolicking in the street.
While these photos evoke a new look at Southwestern culture for guests, they were even more eye-opening for the at-risk kids who took them. Most of the young artists come from abusive and neglectful homes.
Kids in Focus is a Phoenix nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering at-risk youth to reach their potential by using photography to spark their imaginations and build their sense of self-confidence.
It’s given kids a new lens through which to view the world for just over a decade, and while photography is a key component of what it does, founder Karen Shell, who grew up in South Scottsdale, says the organization does a lot more than teaching children about the art of photography.
“We all know the benefit of art therapy, but I think photography is like art therapy on steroids because you’re not just learning to express yourself, but it’s so much more,” Shell said. “
For children who have been through trauma, their world is very myopic, so with photography they learn to express themselves, be creative and get out of that headspace and into the world.”
That was exactly the case for Shell decades ago when the Saguaro High School alumna found solace in photography away from her abusive and challenging home life.
Decades later, she found her life had come full circle, as she noticed photography was breaking the children out of dark ways of thinking and letting them see the color and beauty in the world.
“I’m very personally familiar with the challenges they face,” Shell said. Children in Focus grew out of 20 years of work I had already done and what I saw when I started doing it was that children were different. They went from dark and withdrawn to open, lively, calm and happy.”
Although Shell has shown the work of the children she has helped display in places like the Civic Center Library, the Arizona Science Center and the Children’s Museum of Phoenix over the past decade-plus, the fact that her child’s work now on display at a prized museum has her ecstatic.
“It’s an incredible confidence boost because these kids don’t have music lessons, they don’t have sports teams and they never have opportunities to have a sense of accomplishment and sense of pride,” Shell said.
“For them to know something they created is moving around the city and all these people see is that it’s an immeasurable boost to their confidence.”
The sentiment was echoed by the museum.
“That’s really what the museum is all about,” said Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West chief curator Dr. Tricia Loscher said. “The museum is all about community relations, storytelling, enriching lives and empowerment.”
The exhibit not only drives forward the purpose of the museum, but Loscher says it also adds a contemporary element to the space.
“Our museum looks at the past, present and future and it is a wonderful look at the present and the future.
She even said that she hopes that this exhibition will pave the way for these inventive minds.
“I could see, maybe, one day some of these kids will come back and have solo or group shows here, they’ll be painting or some other art form that creatively expresses themselves in ways that continue their lives,” Loscher said.
That’s why both Loscher and Shell hope that guests who peer at these photos take away a sense of humility and recognition.
“I hope for when visitors see remarkable programs like Kids in Focus in our community and realize that these things are happening and that museums are an important place where this kind of dialogue happens,” Loscher said. “You never know, it could drive more volunteers to Kids in Focus, more donations and mentoring support.”
The photos will be on display until December 30.
If you go:
Children in focus: a new lens on life
When: Until December 30
Where: Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, 3830 N. Marshall Way
Cost: Admission is $20 for non-members