With his two-tone mohawk reaching toward the sky, Dexten Johnson may not appear — at first blush — that he’d be all that into sewing a potholder or messenger bag.

But he is.

To be more precise, the 15-year-old Natural Bridges High School student is interested in developing his skills so he can sew patches onto vests or pants, perhaps later learning how to create clothing — “just to know how to make my own stuff,” he explained. He showed off the punk leather jacket he added more than 500 studs to this summer, and although that’s a departure from threading a needle, he said sewing “has been pretty fun.”

Dexten is but one member of artist Pele Fleming’s sewing and quilting class at the alternative education program located on the Westside of Santa Cruz. The class is part of the Community Youth Arts Project within William James Association, an organization founded in Santa Cruz more than 40 years ago with the mission of using art as a form of personal transformation and social change.

Designed to reach at-risk youth, the Community Youth Arts Project grew out of William James Association’s major program, the Prison Arts Project that sends teaching artists into state prison to work with inmates. Recognized as a national model, WJA’s Prison Arts Project has recently seen restoration of state funding to hire nearly 100 artists and offer visual, literary, music and performing arts programs in 20 prisons across the state.

Named for the philosopher William James, the association is a grant recipient of Arts Council Santa Cruz County and offers fiscal sponsorships to other arts and literacy groups, as well as art instruction in the County Jail.

“We were bringing arts experiences to people who had already offended and having a tremendous effect on people,” said Jack Bowers, former chair of the nonprofit organization’s Board of Directors. “William James Association realized there should be a local Community Youth Arts Project. There are so many opportunities for people to get into the system. We really encourage people to stay in alternative education and away from a life of crime and substance abuse.”

Fleming, who also has taught her sewing skills in teen parent programs and a youth group home in Watsonville, watches the creativity awaken within her young charges.

With the help of donated sewing machines and fabric, the result can run the gamut — from quilts to Day of the Dead prayer flags to satchels small and large — but always beginning with a student’s vision. “I love when they learn and feel they don’t really need instruction anymore,” Fleming said. “If they know how something is put together, they can put anything together after that.”

Sadie Hamre, 16, also a student at Natural Bridges High, has been taking Fleming’s classes for the second year in a row. What’s she’s learned isn’t just creative — it’s useful.

“It’s a skill — if you rip your pants in public and you have a needle and thread, you can sew it,” she said.

– J.M. Brown

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