Sayon Syprasoeuth at his desk in Living Arts Long Beach. Photo by Caitlin Trebil.
Thousands of cars pass this small building cast off the Anaheim corridor in Central Long Beach each day, with passersby not taking a second glance at what could be inside.
If one were to go inside, they would find a multi-use center where elders hoping to become citizens practice their knowledge of American history, and, off to a small corner, professional artists come and inspire diverse youth about their careers in art.
It’s the corner where Sayon Syprasoeuth spend his everyday life managing Living Arts Long Beach, teaching a variety of different mediums to inspire the students. There’s paint, sculptures, dance, silk screening, animation, among others.
Nestled inside The United Cambodian Community’s center, his Living Arts Long Beach program has provided a space for underprivileged youth and Long Beach students to access what are usually costly resources to create art. Founded in 2015, it became a safe and free spot for students to explore their creativity.
Amber Va, a senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, became a part of Living Arts Long Beach when Syprasoeuth spoke to her Digital Media class. Wanting to expand her art skills, she applied.
“This program opened and expanded my views on other careers that I didn’t know about. It brought me into a whole new world. It welcomed me into photography, graphic design, computer coding…” Va said.
The program accepts youth ages 15 to 25 and currently accepts 25 youth every 6 months, who tend to reflect the district’s diversity: Asian, Latino, Khmer, white and black. Some are queer.
In the beginning, Living Arts Long Beach ran off donations. With their connection to the Arts Council of Long Beach, the program was able to secure a two-year grant from the California Arts Council. This funding has allowed the program to go on tours of schools, buy supplies, and catalogs for the kids.
“It’s an introduction to art…I hope that it shows them the various ways to communicate creatively,” Syprasoeuth said. “They could also build confidence, social skills, communication skills and that they know that there’s someone that cares about them and a safe space for them to be in.”
“It’s just really an exposure where they can be immersed in it and there are people around to answer their questions,” Syprasoeuth said.
Local youth Lauren Snook has fond memories of the program. She was 17-years-old and a senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School when she joined and her first art class passed out applications for Living Arts Long Beach.
“Being a broke high schooler at the time, I didn’t have much funds to further my art and explore different mediums,” she said. “But thankfully Living Arts prepares stipends for its students so they can purchase art supplies at our local art shop.”
“Living Arts really broke me out of my shell and helped me become more comfortable with myself and what I create and I am so thankful for that,” she added.
Syprasoeuth said that Living Arts Long Beach provides place where students can be themselves without judgment, including for the many who are LGBTQ and of various ethnicities.
“They learn that they are fine with who they are. Just to have an art class, it’s really not just about art. Everyone feels that they are safe and they want to explore and create things creatively,” he said.
To Syprasoeuth, the best moments that come out of Living Arts Long Beach have been the stories of success. He recalled one student who wasn’t going to graduate high school and Living Arts Long Beach helped fulfill some of his missing credits. The student had been trying to get out of a gang while also taking care of his mother and grandmother. He asked the student if he would’ve done something better with his time if he had never applied for Living Arts Long Beach.
“He was able to say ‘Nope, nope, I would’ve been in a worse situation,’” Syprasoeuth said.
As of now, Living Arts Long Beach continues partnering with the Arts Council of Long Beach while recruiting from local high schools like Woodrow Wilson, Long Beach Polytechnic, and Millikan and also community colleges. Students interested must apply for the six-month program and submit an art sample, but, Syprasoeuth said, more than anything, the major qualification is a passion for making art.