AN Arts at Marks Garage program encourages area youth to think big—and small

Text by Sonny Ganaden ||  Images courtesy of youth of Generation of Smiles


“Get your snacks and cool off, we’ll get started in a minute,” says Christy Knoll on a school day afternoon in the community art space The Arts at Marks Garage. Knoll is the director, but also acts as the program manager, the snack lady, and the arts equipment manager of a weekly after-school program called Generation of Smiles, in which youth make installations both massive and miniature throughout Chinatown. 

Of the seven students currently enrolled, four showed up for today’s class. “OK kids, our goal is to have at least one installation on the street today,” Knoll says. Needing little motivation, student Sequoia Rusk from Washington Middle School is already busy sketching the day’s street installation. “It’s a woman holding an umbrella,” Rusk says while shading her figure.  “I’m not sure where I’ll set her up, but I know the umbrella’s yellow.” 

This current project of the group of middle-schoolers takes them to the world of the miniature—think photographic stills from the movies Ant Man or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In the absence of public school art programs that were defunded a decade ago, non-profits like Marks Garage have attempted to fill the creative needs of local youth. In 2015, Rich Richardson, Marks Garage’s executive director, tapped Knoll to run a program for students from neighboring junior high schools. Knoll found the work of London-based artist Slinkachu to be an inspiration. Using a cell phone to document his Little People project, Slinkachu creates and reconfigures miniature figurines, setting them in the English urban environment. His minute narratives are character profiles of the modern urban condition interacting with an oversized world. In his popular images, a halved tennis ball is a deserted island, an orange peel is a skate ramp, and a dead fish is a giant sea monster. In Chinatown, the students make a snapshot scene of their own design featuring figures no bigger than 1-by-1-inches that they make with modeling clay, wire, and whatever they find on the streets. A show to display the photographs is in the works, but has yet to be scheduled. 

Last year, the program was on a completely different kind of field trip. The famed Hawai‘i Theatre located across the street wanted a community-made backdrop, so Generation of Smiles youth collaborated with local multimedia artist, botanist, and hyper-energetic savant Kahi Ching to paint sophisticated floor-to-ceiling banners that were then rigged and lit by the theater’s expert staff. The banners were used as backdrops during a concert by the popular Hawaiian falsetto singer Kuana Torres Kahele that was attended by thousands. 

On the other end of the arts spectrum are the nearly invisible miniature installations. “OK, we’re all ready to install,” says Kawananakoa Middle School student Ian Tucker. “I think I’ll set her up somewhere in front of the ice cream shop,” he says of the quarter-inch figurine he carefully painted. For 20 minutes, Tucker assumes the position of a surgeon, sculpting and painting an ice cream cone form. “Change the angle! Focus on the girl and take the picture quick!” the other students chime in as Tucker creates the trompe-l’œil of a well-lit, shallow-focus photograph by pushing his phone’s camera to the edge of its capacity. Being junior high kids, the students are experts at using phone cameras and social media hash tags. “Oh don’t mind us!” Knoll says to passersby as the students huddle around the tiny scene. Leaving the ice cream figure, they reconvene a block away to begin the next installation. With a bit of superglue, Rusk’s umbrella-wielding figure perches on the curb. In the photograph Rusk snaps of the scene, a blurred out-of-focus Chinatown is the background. “After this school year, I’m moving to Boston to go to an arts high school,” Rusk declares. “I’m not sure what kind of art I want to make yet though.” 

The tiny figurines don’t last long after installation, falling victims to the weather, or taken by someone for more adventures. The students aren’t sure what happens to them—if they become idols, relics, or trash. Many times, the creations don’t stay in place for the full length of class. But once, they found a figurine exactly where it was installed a full two days later. “I know it’s tragic, but they’ll be gone in a heartbeat,” Knoll says of the miniatures while crossing the street back to Marks Garage. “At least they each have a noble little life before they’re gone.”