Just inside the front door at Sven's European Café, a minichorus of Bay View High School students is making a big sound, singing some of the numbers they have learned over the past school year.
Angelo Ruiz, head of the school's art department, sits on the edge of his comfy chair, steady eyes gazing at the walls where his students' paintings, sculptures, prints, weavings and drawings are proudly displayed.
It was Fine Arts Night at Sven's European Café, held May 24. The event showcases the creative talents of Bay View High School students, including artists, poets, musicians and vocalists.
Art is his life
A lanky kid in a knit cap, baggy pants and sporting multiple piercings strides in and breezes past the crowd, plunking himself down at a table for two.
"He's the best artist in school," Ruiz says, nodding toward the table.
The young man is David Leverenz, 18, and he is not enrolled in any art classes. But art fills his days like the drawings that fill his sketchbooks.
"(Art) is my life; it's already took me over," he says.
He is ambidextrous and in the classroom he takes notes with one hand and sketches with the other.
It's just the way he learns.
When he is not in his classes, he is in the high school's art room, working on a mural. David has painted murals in the past, but always under somebody's direction and always with a group of students. This is the first major project he has tackled independently.
"It's a totally different feeling when it's all on you," David says.
The feeling, when David is deeply concentrating on his work, is like a trance, he explains.
"It's kind of a blank zone," he says. He does not start with a detailed plan; he just puts pencil to paper and lets ideas emerge.
What turned up in the mural is a woman in a diaphanous dress standing on a cliff. A phoenix rises in the center of the scene, sheltering the woman with its wings under a gargoyle's gaze. Mythical creatures gather in a crowd around the borders.
"A lot of my art has to do with my emotions while I'm doing it," David says. He makes a point of not working if something is bothering him. He doesn't want to produce anything too dark, he says.
Pulling out one of his sketchbooks, David flips through a couple of pages.
He stops at a drawing of a design he plans to have translated into a tattoo. It is a composition of luminous orbs, a large one that serves as the base for a bare-branched tree, and smaller ones circling around it.
Inspired by the night
David says the design is his impression of the tree of life. It was inspired by a pitch-black night in Bishop's Woods, when he and a friend were randomly shooting photographs of the darkness surrounding them. When they looked at the photos, the images were filled with glowing spheres that appeared to be floating through the air. He just loved that.
At Sven's, a series of David's highly detailed pencil drawings are on display near the front door. All of them are actually unfinished, he says, because none of his drawings or paintings are ever done to his complete satisfaction. That's what keeps him motivated as an artist.
"What compels me the most is people's reactions," he says. "You can look at the drawings and interpret them in your own way. Everyone has their own views about my work, and sometimes they see stuff I didn't even see."
The best moments, David says, come when somebody looks at one of his pieces and simply says, "It's beautiful."
"That's a really good feeling; it keeps me going. It makes me happy," he says.
David peels off his knit cap and his multicolored Mohawk spilled out.
He says he has thought about going to art school, but he is not sure if that would be the right move for him.
"I want to travel," David says, so that he can sketch and draw and paint the journey. "I just have so many ideas in my head."
Angelo Ruiz teaches art techniques at Bay View High School, but he also teaches a few perspectives on life.
That explains why his students call him "Sensei," (pronounced Sen'-say) the Japanese word for "teacher." Ruiz said he taught English in Japan for several years. At Bay View High School, he teaches his students some Japanese words that correspond to concepts of etiquette, like the words for please and thank you.
"It's all about respect," Ruiz says.
Ruiz says the toughest challenge in teaching art at the high school level is "to get over the stigma that some kids have. By the time they get to high school, some kids think they can't draw."
So Ruiz bases his grading on a number of factors: 10 percent for the student's notebook, 45 percent for the actual artwork, and the remaining 45 percent for regularly attending classes and working hard every day.
"I explain that it translates to the work force," Ruiz says. No matter what line of work a student might pursue, he said, they could be the best in their field, but if they can't work hard and get along with coworkers, they will not be able to earn a living.
Reginald Jackson, 17, has been working in Ruiz's cartooning class, telling stories visually in pen and ink.
"He teaches us how to draw in different styles, like silhouette," Reginald says. "And then how to make different perspectives, like bird's-eye and worm's-eye views."
Brian Clayton, 16, plans on enrolling in the cartooning class next year. He said he likes to draw and he also plays music. He began to learn how to play drums when he was 8.
"I was always beating on the table and a teacher told me to put that to good use," Brian recalls.
Today Brian is a member of the school's drum line and also plays bass guitar.
He is interested in learning "all types of music - to play 'em all is a great thing."
Spectrum of art
Variety is the spice of life for student Michelle Lepak, as well. She has been singing in choirs since the sixth grade and enjoys singing the range of music performed by the Bay View High School Advanced Choir.
On Fine Arts Night, choir members sing everything from gospel to sacred music to Broadway show tunes.
Ruiz says one of his goals is to encourage students to appreciate the spectrum of art opportunities available in the community. His students have toured the Milwaukee Art Museum twice this year and will go to the Art Institute of Chicago this week.
"The idea I'm trying to foster is that kids should be exposed to as much variety as possible," Ruiz says.
At a Glance
WHAT: art created by Bay View High School students
WHEN: through Monday, June 4
WHERE: Sven's European Café, 2699 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
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