Amid the skyscrapers, the traffic, and the harsh realities of New York City lies ART START, a nationally recognized, award-winning non-profit organization that uses art to nurture, transform, and save lives. Described as an escape for at-risk and homeless youth, the organization encourages students to immerse themselves in art to find their purpose, and to persevere through obstacles.

Musician Miky Solano, also known as Miky Hustles, is just one of the 11,000 youth who say ART START has changed their lives. He has been involved with ART START for the past three years.

“I never really knew what art was,” he told theGrio. “I always thought it was just drawing or painting. Yet once I met some people that started teaching me what art really is, it changed my whole perspective on art. They told me that music is also a form of art and how you could express yourself, so since then it changed my whole perspective about art. I see life in a different way than I thought I would ever see [it].”

Before his involvement in ART START, the 21-year-old Solano said he had been incarcerated and was headed in the wrong direction.

“I was always getting in trouble or doing things that weren’t appropriate,” Solano said. “I was also always close-minded and never trying to explore or expand my knowledge on different things that were out there.”

Once Solano was out of prison, he decided to make a change in his life after talking with one of his friends. “One of my friends had been incarcerated, and after that he was introduced to this program,” he continued, “I had also been in the same predicament as my friend, and he knew that I wanted to get involved in music. So he told me to go one day, and I did.”

Yet, Solano admitted that he was nervous about creating music since he never really knew how to make a song. However, once he started getting comfortable, he made his first musical piece.

“My first song ever was called H.O.P.E.,” he asserted. ”[The ART START facilitators] helped me a lot and helped me opened up my mind. I started thinking and talking about things that I had never talked about before, like politics, nature, conspiracies, government, [the] economy, astronomy and more. Through ART START, I’ve learned that you can speak your mind. I’ve also learned that there is more stuff out there that you can discover. Knowledge is infinite!”

To Solano, ART START has helped him fulfill his dream of sharing his music with the world. “My art is music,” he said, “I’ve realized that the microphone is a powerful tool, because when I speak it gets recorded and goes into millions of peoples’ ears. Whatever I am saying, someone can catch onto it and hopefully they understand what I’m saying, where I’m coming from, and how I see the world or life.”

Solano is not the only person who has realized the power of art.

Author and researcher Mariah Buchanan has also discovered its power. In her book Educating Black Youth Moral Principles through Black Art, Buchanan asserts that after conducting a research study, she found that black students develop better morals and life perspectives through critically interpreting works of art created by black artists. Through the study, she found that art helped students gain moral integrity and purpose.

“Art depicts historical facts, cultural differences, and aesthetic values each of us may have,” she wrote in her research paper, “Art can also foster a sense of identity through the interaction between the viewer and the work. This study will allow teachers another avenue to direct moral principles, which is a form of character education, by using art as a tool to do so. This study should, I believe, be investigated further because it will contribute to the overwhelming need in America to enhance the lives of black youth, because many are considered at risk.”

Indeed, ART START is one organization whose facilitators are teaching art to its at-risk youth to encourage them to create better lives for themselves. Billy Martin, also known as Spiritchild, is the current director of ART START’s music program, One Mic. After being in the position for a year, he said that this is his dream job, as it compliments his life experiences.

“ART START has been an evolution of my life’s work,” Martin said, “I’ve always done workshops internationally and throughout the United States. However, through ART START I’m able to not only introduce concepts, but also to develop and nourish our participants for a longer moment in time. I’ve witnessed students gain a deeper understanding of self, and a holistic approach to being an artist and an individual in this world, from nutrition, to endless forms of expression like voice, production, instruments, and graffiti, to combating stereotypes and misogyny in hip hop.”

ART START was established in the spring of 1991 after a small group of artists joined with homeless kids to make art in New York City.

Now, more than twenty years later, ART START has been recognized by celebrities and world leaders for its educators, who use creative arts to support and transform the lives of youth who seem to be going down the wrong path.

In fact, according to the directors of ART START, youth involved in the organization usually live in city shelters, on the streets, are involved in court cases, or are in rough family situations. The organization offers these young people workshops designed with a student-centered approach to education.

“Our workshops instill in our youth the confidence to appreciate who they already are and what they innately have to offer the world; then, to think critically, ask important questions, and pursue meaningful opportunities in life — against all odds,” Martin said, “While encouraging personal development on many levels, by using art and music projects and focusing on their outlet for expression, kids are free to build trusting relationships with our teaching artists.”

Even though Tyrone Richards, also known as T Rich, just joined ART START last year, its One Mic Program has already changed his perspective.

“Without my art, which is my music, I would not be me,” Richards said, “I would be lost in my own skin. Making music takes my pain away. I believe that art is powerful. Whether it’s drawing art or making music, art it something that all people can relate to. I would tell kids or young adults to sign up for ART START to get better at their craft and to learn about themselves more.”

Torey Baker, also known as Mad Bangers, also added that being involved with ART START helped him to stay out of trouble and to make something of his life. The twenty-year-old got involved with ART START and its One Mic program two years ago.

“ART START changed my life by keeping me focused on music,” Baker told theGrio, “I have realized that art saves lives. Just to come to the program every Tuesday and Wednesday is great, especially since I get to be in a studio.”

For Baker, ART START has created a positive ripple effect on his life by bringing positive people into his life. He noted that the organization has allowed him to not only meet more people, but also to have a greater sense of well-being.

“It not only changed my life, but it changed the lives of the people in my life,” he said, “I would tell other youth to get involved with ART START, because it expands your mind and helps you explore more about life. It also gives you great opportunities and guidance in whatever you want to pursue in your life. You can collaborate with other people around the same age group and help out, which helps when you start meeting new people outside of ART START, because you are confident in yourself.”

To help build students’ confidence even more, Martin said he and other facilitators often take the students on trips to help educate them on different artworks, cultures, and people.

“Some of our students have never left New York City,” he said, “Yet, in the past year we’ve traveled to Philly, upstate New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and other states to visit various higher learning institutions, participate in conferences, engage in workshops and performances, and have fun. A few of our participants are even currently learning some basic German to prepare them for their first international trip to Germany and the Czech Republic in the fall.”

Leaders of ART START hope to encourage others to support their organization, so that more at-risk youth can use it to change their lives.

Indeed, as Solano looks back on his experiences at ART START, he said that he is motivated to help others realize that art can transform their circumstances.

“Art is powerful and magical, because through art anyone can take pieces and create a masterpiece,” Solano, “I’ve always wondered why art is so big and important. However, I have realized that art is life. We live in it, and we are constantly surrounded by it.”