Opening a New World
Through Project Open Door, first-year student Anthony Azanon 18 FS was able to build a portfolio strong enough to get into RISD.
Walk into the Project Open Door (POD) basement studio almost any afternoon and you’ll find a space bursting with energy. Hands dirtied with charcoal dust, talented high school students may be furiously sketching the human body. Others may be painting pristine canvases with rich colors. To an outsider, the activity may appear to be chaotic. But to those absorbed in their creative work, it’s a place of profound transformation.
Under the leadership of Professor Paul Sproll, head of RISD’s department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design, experienced POD instructors facilitate a free arts education program for Rhode Island's underserved teens from Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket. The staff helps students develop admission portfolios, make college applications and prepare to excel in higher education.
POD alum Anthony Azanon 18 FS offer a prime example of the way the program works. Now that he has completed his first semester at RISD on a full scholarship, the soft-spoken artist—whose surrealist and abstract paintings show real promise – is excited to be working with Associate Professor Deborah Zlotsky to refine his ability to consider space when drawing three-dimensional objects. “I'm receiving a lot of good feedback concerning my work,” he notes. "“My teachers keep encouraging me to stay open to where my work might lead.”
But it wasn’t until Azanon immigrated to the US from his native Guatemala as a 14-year-old that he was first exposed to visual arts. Understanding little English, he enrolled in Providence’s Hope High School, where he began taking introductory classes with a good-natured teacher named Mrs. Travis. Once she gently urged him to apply to POD, he began exploring fine art and developing his portfolio for college admissions. He also received ample encouragement, which gave him a newfound confidence to apply to the best art schools.
“Once accepted [by POD], I was part of something that pushed me into unknown spaces,” Azanon explains. “It changed my identity and shaped me as a person. I’m equally proud and happy to say I’m the first in my family to go to college. I plan to graduate with a degree in architecture.”
Fellow Foundations Studies student Vuthy Lay 18 FS also credits POD with his acceptance to RISD. From an early age, the artist developed the ability to design geometric patterns and blueprints while drafting construction plans with his father at the kitchen table. He entered Providence’s Classical High School with a persistent dream of eventually becoming an architect.
Lay eventually found his way to New Urban Arts, a community arts studio located across from his high school. Through a chance encounter, he met interdisciplinary artist Beth Nixon, who performs at the RISD Museum. She advised Lay to apply to art school but first bolster his portfolio through classes at POD. Once there instructors challenged the talented teenager to master figure and perspective drawing.
“At the time, I felt like the structure [of that type of drawing] was too rigid for my taste,” Lay says. “But after I was taught the basics, I fell in love with those mediums.”
Like Azanon, Lay has a fascinating family history. Both of his parents are Cambodian refugees who immigrated to the US. A former child soldier, his father earned his master’s degree in education from Brown and now teaches high school mathematics. His mother grew up in France with her family, who ran a successful restaurant chain.
“My parents have always been living examples of success for me,” explains Lay. “From an early age, they taught me the value of hard work and how to be self-sufficient. I know how important it is to make the most of my time at RISD.”
After earning a master’s degree in teaching at RISD, high school art teacher Brian Hutcheson MAT 07 encourages his best students to apply to RISD.
Ghanain painter and community artist Munir Mohammed MA 99 finds joy and serenity in teaching.
Having earned her undergraduate degree at RISD, Project Open Door alumna Sara Pollard 13 IL/MAT 14 is now pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching and looking forward to becoming an art teacher.