Steven Sylvester & Help Me Build a Home of My Own
by Crista Toler, Studio Market Coordinator
Using your artistic talent as a way to address a societal need can be very rewarding to the artist and inspiring to those of us that witness it. I was recently introduced to Steven Sylvester, an artist in Florida that uses his talents in clay by working with children that are aging out of foster care. I was intrigued with his efforts as I have personally worked with a group in my own area that guides children who find themselves in this life-changing position.
Steven Sylvester always wanted to be an artist or a veterinarian. As a teen, his brother's diagnosis with mental illness prompted Steven to change his focus to social work. When his brother passed away, he decided it was time to pursue his art, focusing on architectural ceramics and his signature Ladies' Dress Series through which he creates life-size couture dresses out of clay.
Steven had his first solo museum show in just the third year of his art career. Now that his business had taken off and he could do whatever he wanted artistically, he found it less exciting than the social work to which he had dedicated himself previously. He decided that combining art with a social cause or need would fulfill both desires.
Upon meeting Gia Tutalo-Mote, the Founding Director of Forever Family. Steven learned more about the foster care system. He worked with Gia to help raise funds for Forever Family as his passion to help some of the thousands of children that age out of foster care in Florida each year. While these children are given a small amount of money to continue their education without structure, support and encouragement, their potential for success is lessened. The fact that so many foster children are simply not equipped to provide for themselves is heart-breaking and prompted Steven to examine his own life. He grew up well-protected and loved and wondered what his life would have been like if he was sent out the door of his home at age 18.
Steven's program, Help Me Build a Home of My Own, and was named thinking from the perspective of a young person. Through the program, Steven meets with at risk children and foster children that are aging out of the system, utilizing his social work training and background.
During the first meeting, the kids wrap clay around a half-and-half container. As they work with the clay and begin to build their house, Steven engages them a dialogue about their dreams, their home and their future. Questions such as, "Tell me about your life. Where do you live? With whom do you live? Do you have pets? What does your home look like?" As Steven says about this interaction, "It is a conscious planning of their lives and goals." The artists use a variety of tools to add texture to their creations and the doors on the homes are always open.
In the second session, after the houses have been bisque fired, the children decorate them with glaze. Steven encourages as much detail as possible. By this point, the kids are more comfortable with Steven and each other. It is beautiful to see what comes out of these children and into their clay creation.
The final session becomes a show and tell about their homes. Each child gets to share the story of the home they have built and is encouraged by Steven to share more about their life, their plans and their goals. I imagine the words spoken during this meeting are inspiring and also heart-wrenching. Steven shared that one child built a fence around his home to protect his mother, while another said their goal was to be a doctor.
Several of the Help Me Build a Home of My Own fundraisers to which he contributes his efforts are held at Joe Picasso's paint-your-own pottery studio in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Studio owner Kaylin Brady has known Steven since 2005 and has enjoyed watching him grow as an artist and philanthropist through the years. Kaylin noted that Steven's passion for helping these children is relentless and he loves being able to help.
The fundraisers at Joe Picasso's involve the public or private groups building clay houses which they decorate with Mayco glazes. The houses are given to Steven to use in auctions to support his organization. The goal is to raise awareness of the situation in which foster children find themselves after they age out of the foster care system.
On occasion Steven will see a child that he worked with and some even keep in contact with him. "These kids have a hard time maintaining a relationship - even a good relationship," said Steven.
Mayco is admirer of Steven's professional work and his program, Help Me Build a Home of My Own, and has supported his efforts. He particularly enjoys using Foundations and notes, "I use Mayco Foundation Sheers as they highlight the detailed artwork in the clay and I have never had a negative experience with this product or the Mayco company."
I'm grateful for people like Steven - someone who uses their skills, talents and energy to help others. It is true that in giving to others we receive much gratitude, hope and fulfillment.