Stories Invincible: The heart of Camden in the art of Camden
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” If so, then what could be said between a pair of painters? That’s what Stories Invincible fellow Estefany Rodriguez set out to uncover.
During last summer’s application process, the Center for Cooperative Media encouraged applicants to submit stories of all sorts of mediums. Our mission was and remains to combat Camden’s stigmatized image in the media as part of the Stories Invincible project. Open-mindedness on what that could look like is key to our approach.
Stef, an artist resident at the Camden FireWorks gallery and art teacher at Pennsauken High School, proposed using her potential project funding not directly on herself nor even on conventional journalism. In response to our call for restorative narratives, to represent the spirit of Camden and its info needs, Stef’s answer was to let the youth and the arts do the talking.
Stef began conducting her project, ‘Beauty in the Brokenness,’ in the fall of 2022 which culminated in a limited gallery at Fireworks over this past weekend.
‘Beauty’ consists of a series of private art lessons led by Stef for a pair of Camden high school students, equipping them with supplies and her Fireworks studio space to create within. The teen artists, Genesis and Luna, got the chance to show off a sample of their collection at the Stories Invincible ceremony at Camden County College last month.
We interviewed Stef, Genesis, and Luna during one of their workshop nights, and got to see the magic in action.
“We’re looking into info needs and trying to relay some important messages through our paintings,” Stef said of the inspiration behind the artwork. “Throughout the last few weeks, we’ve been doing some research, learning about some issues, and the artists here have been putting all of that into the paintings.”
“I just love expressing myself through my art,” Genesis added, “especially with an assignment like this, getting to show different perspectives.”
Asked about her hometown’s reputation, Luna shared that, “so many people see Camden like a trashy area where a lot of people get drugged and shot — just a violent area — but we have so many spaces and people that are beautiful.”
Luna believes that having visual arts stand in for the written word gives their project an advantage.
“People can take any of our opinions differently,” said Luna, adding that visual art, however, can help to distill a message. “It’s an easier way to help people see what is going on.”
In addition to having the students give voice to what they see in Camden, Stef hopes ‘Beauty’ inspires more support for students like Genesis and Luna: “I’ve had parents reaching out to me asking, ‘when can I sign up my child for art lessons?’”
“Whether it is painting, or other art forms, like ceramics, there aren’t many opportunities outside of school and it’s hard because some schools don’t even offer certain art types or they’re the first ones to get cut,” said Stef. At both the closing ceremony and the following gallery, guests were invited to purchase the students’ artwork, helping them grow as professional artist status in real-time.
“We’re talking and sharing information and sharing stories and building community and that’s the beautiful thing about it,” Stef said of this creative effort. “We got here because of the info needs that may not have been so positive, but the outcome is us coming together, and that ultimately is positive.”
Reet Starwind is the Stories Invincible project coordinator for the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. He is an artist, educator, and organizer in the Camden area working with the Center to elevate restorative narratives about Camden’s residents and history. Contact Reet via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @mrstarwind.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.