“I had no idea that I had this artistic ability to draw and paint.”
Instead, 16-year-old Emily Lyons was interested in photography. “That’s when Myspace and Facebook were everything, and everyone was taking photos,” she said.
When Lyons discovered that an organization called Artists For Humanity (AFH) was hiring teens, she jumped at the chance to pursue this hobby professionally.
Lyons pictured as an AFH teen.
Many teens reside locally in the metropolitan Boston area. Lyons lived in Brockton, Massachusetts, and commuted to AFH via a bus that transported a cohort of Brockton High School students.
“I got interviewed and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll hire you, but here’s the thing. You can’t go into photography until you do your 72 hours of apprenticeship in the Painting Studio, [the hiring process at that time].’”
Lyons, a participant in concert bands and musicals, was no stranger to the arts. Painting, however, was uncharted territory.
“When you first walk into the Painting Studio, it can be a bit overwhelming,” Lyons said. “But once you create a relationship with your mentor and those around you, everyone is there to support you.”
To her, AFH is a family. “I still keep in touch with most of the folks that I worked with during that time, which was ten plus years ago!”
Lyons pictured as an adult.
“My 72 hours of apprenticeship were up and I had the opportunity to look at the other studios. I decided not to. I fell in love with everyone who I was working with, everything that I was working on, and the challenge that painting had presented.”
“You couldn’t always rely on what you knew how to do,” Lyons said, describing the difficulty of painting assignments.
First, she was given a mirror and instructed to learn the grayscale to paint a black and white self-portrait.
“My personal portrait took weeks and weeks and weeks to do,” and when it was finally done, “I was super proud of it, [because] you know, this was my first painting."
She returned to the studio a few days later to find her entire canvas painted over by her mentor Andy.
“Start over,” he said.
Lyons was speechless — hours of work down the drain. “Of course, I was discouraged,” she said. “But there was either you’re discouraged, and you choose to quit, or you’re discouraged, and you choose to do something better.”
Lyons picked up her paintbrush and went back to the drawing board.
“You had to be given that sort of tough love in order to grow. That was the support I needed, and that was the mentorship I needed.”
Client projects put her skills to the test.
In West Roxbury, the word ‘LOSER’ was spray-painted on the side of the MAX Ultimate Food. Boston artist Lynette Shaw commissioned AFH to select six teens to revamp the exterior wall, including Lyons.
AFH teens painting a scrim for the exterior wall of Max Ultimate Food.
“When you get chosen to participate in murals, it makes you feel very special,” Lyons said. “Those moments make you feel like you’ve accomplished something really great.”
That summer, the team completed a giant abstract piece and installed it over the graffiti. Lyons took pride in her art having a positive impact outside of AFH. It was her first mural, and it was just the beginning.
The collaborative scrim at MAX Ultimate Food’s Roxbury facility.
“Did you do mostly abstract art during your time at AFH?” I asked.
“No!” Lyons answered with a laugh. “I did a lot of animals, a lot of lions,” inspired by her last name.
“The animals gave me an opportunity to practice my stroke and brush method,” she explained. “They were the form I used to define my style.”
She would fill her canvas with lime green, bright red, and pops of purple. “My pieces were abstract in the sense that I wouldn’t work with your normal color palette.”
Some of Emily's paintings while a teen at AFH.
“My first lion ended up being my best piece. After that, I said. ‘I’m going to try another and another.’ Andy called me Lyoness, and that was my running nickname around the studio.”
When asked to pick her proudest moment at AFH, Lyons recalled the collaborative experience of creating a mural in her hometown.
In the height of summer, the group painted for seven hours a day. The finished product spelled out ‘BROCKTON’ in large letters and received widespread publicity from the mayor and news reporters.
The mural in Brockton.
“We got to tell a story of Brockton and showcase ourselves as a community of teen artists,” Lyons beamed. That’s the beauty of AFH: “It gives you something you can say is yours.”
The time at which AFH entered her life — and many alumni’s lives — was when she was navigating her youth.
“[As a teen], you need help figuring out who you’re blossoming into,” Lyons said. AFH provided a sense of direction. Eventually, she gained the confidence to say: “I am an artist.”
It wasn’t long before Lyons faced the reality of being one.
“A decade ago, art was not as promising of a career,” so her parents urged her to study business. “I was pretty nerdy,” Lyons admitted. “I took AP and IB classes and really enjoyed high school.”
She met their expectations and enrolled at Pace University in New York City. “I was quite conflicted in my freshman year of college,” Lyons said. “I wanted to live in Boston and transfer to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.”
“AFH had exposed me to so much. It showed me that you could have an art career, and it could be a fulfilling one.”
The pressure to sacrifice art in exchange for stability mounted. Still, Lyons craved a life like the one that she had at AFH, filled with passion, discipline, and community.
“Those 72 hours are so critical because you’re volunteering yourself. You have to show your commitment,” Lyons said. “Once you’re hired, AFH is your space to express yourself, be championed, and feel safe.”
Above all, AFH taught Lyons that people make or break experiences. “Besides mentors who were considered your elders, you also had teens that equally served as motivation and influence,” she said.
After much deliberation, Lyons remained at Pace University. This was due to a professor who recommended that she major in economics. “He thought I did really well in it and saw my interest,” Lyons said.
Similar to painting, the decision to stay was a pivotal step in embracing her vast potential.
Combining art and economics, Lyons shifted her gears to nonprofit arts management. “Living in Brooklyn, I interned for a gallery, and then I started working for Project Sunshine,” which supplies resources and develops art curriculums for children in hospitals.
She also interned at Free Arts NYC, offering art activities to low-income students in New York City public schools and co-teaching an after-school program in Harlem.
While the work was rewarding, “a lot of it was after hours or during times when I had classes, so it was hard to dedicate myself to an organization,” Lyons said. “I began to focus on my personal art,” thinking, “how can I start to make an income off of this?”
In college, Lyons became a self-taught visual artist, networking and participating in shows around New York City.
AFH co-founder Rob Gibbs once said, “If you don’t use it, you lose it!” This motto inspires Lyons to leverage her artistry. Today, she serves as a marketing manager for Akamai Technologies, an internet company based in Cambridge.
“I find ways to weave my creative abilities into my marketing career, through presentations, branding, graphics, in addition to [personal] commissions and selling [my own] work,” she said.
Lyons believes that the nontraditional version of herself can be accepted and championed in the workplace. “People recognize that creativity is where I excel,” she said. “That’s how I can be an asset to their organization.”
“I have my first solo show at the end of July,” Lyons eagerly shared. Located in East Williamsburg, the event will feature abstract art, exploring how lines, shapes, and colors relate to various moods.
“I’m super excited because the pieces I’m showing are a brand new style, nothing like I’ve ever done before.”
“Though I chased the ‘corporate America’ route, the itch for art never went away. I couldn’t hide that part of my identity. I couldn’t remove myself from it.”
“Maybe I would’ve gone to art school if I wasn’t so anxious about what my parents would say or thinking I wasn’t good enough,” Lyons mused. “Back then, all of these things were so heavy on my mind.”
AFH didn’t extenuate the social, emotional, or financial barriers of the art world. In retrospect, it instilled in Lyons the approach of staying true to herself in all life endeavors.
In her words, don’t let the fear of failure or judgment undermine your worth.
“At that age, it’s not the time to be worrying about where you’ll be ten years from now,” Lyons said with a smile, her voice trailing off. “Life works out in its own way.”