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Countdown to the annual event: 3 days left!

Meet Elia Gurna!

Relationship with New Urban Arts: Former Executive Director (2013-2014), Award Winner

Elia is an an artist, an activist, a youth worker and a mother. She was born in Queens, NY and is of mixed heritage – her mother immigrated from Austria and her father from Pakistan. Elia grew up in Queens, Vienna, and Karachi.

Elia’s work has been included in exhibitions annually since 2001, including galleries and other spaces in New York City, Beacon, NY and Philadelphia, as well as the Queens Museum of Art. She is part of the music and poetry performance collaboration einLab, which was featured on Columbia University’s WKCR’s Live Constructions radio program and has performed live in various gallery and museum settings.

As part of her mission to create youth led social change art projects, Elia participated in Theater of the Oppressed trainings and became a Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory facilitator in 2011. She has since facilitated this work for Occupy activists and others.

Elia has worked in youth programs for over 15 years in both the United States and Europe. In New York, she founded and directed Art Without Limits, a program of Development Without Limits (DWL), which provided out of school time art experiences for young people. As part of her work with DWL, Elia also facilitated dozens of professional development workshops on onsite coaching for youth workers and educators on a range of topics including positive discipline and child and youth development.

In addition to her work in art, activism, and youth work Elia has taught German language courses at the university level. Her favorite job yet was being a bike messenger in Vienna, Austria.

Elia holds a B.A. in German and Visual Arts from Columbia University and an MFA in Painting and Sculpture from Queens College, CUNY. 

We interviewed Elia and asked her to share with us how she got started with New Urban Arts. Here’s what she said:

How did you first hear about New Urban Arts?
I first heard about New Urban Arts through my husband Eric, when he came to visit the program in 2009. New Urban Arts was included in a report on best practices in 21st century afterschool programs. As a teaching artist, I had often dreamt out loud about a storefront community art studio for young people that exemplified my vision of art as the practice of freedom. Eric called me from Providence and said – “that place you talk about – it exists!”

How long have you been involved with New Urban Arts?
I didn’t really become deeply involved with New Urban Arts until I came on as Executive Director in 2013. Before that my relationship had been virtual – visiting the “exchange” section of the website to use some of the guides and activities with kids and educators and artists I was working with in New York, and then in 2012 my husband Eric interviewed the Executive Director Jason Yoon and the Director of Programs Sarah Meyer for his podcast “Please speak Freely” and we made a trip to Providence to do that. So in a sense I was learning from this community of artists before I had even really met them personally!

What’s something that you think makes New Urban Arts stand out from other organizations?
New Urban Arts stands out to me as a place created by youth for youth and as an organization that embodies its founding principles, vision, and values.  While firm in content, New Urban Arts is flexible in form – new young people join the studio every year and get to engage democratically in creating the environment that is best for their development.

The Bauhaus painter and artist Paul Klee said, “Art makes the invisible visible.” And this is what I love about New Urban Arts the most – with just a little creative space and freedom, young people show us how wonderful, smart, and capable they already are, and we as adults are able to take heart and appreciate how much we need them, their good ideas and their energy to create the just and beautiful world we all want.

What was the last adventure you chose to go on? What did you do?
The great adventure I am currently on involves navigating Los Angeles (which is the size of Rhode Island!) – so there is a lot to see and learn and take in – and the other great adventure is raising two kids while trying to make art! Ha! Lately though, reading about the refugee crisis and all the war and displacement and destruction in the world, I have been grateful for just how unadventurous my life is, and that I can go on adventures by reading books! My latest book adventure has led me to the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh – wondering how to create peace in the world by living mindfully. I recommend his book: Peace is Every Step. I think that peace is an adventure worth going on.

Why do you support New Urban Arts?
I support New Urban Arts

– Because it gives me hope for a cooperative, kind, beautiful world,
– Because I believe in art as the practice of freedom,
– Because I believe that everyone is an artist,
– Because I am counting on the community of young people to say what it needs and wants better than one person (in this case me, but really I mean any one person who happens to have the means or power to take the microphone), – and because no one should ever feel invisible or alone.

So I will end with the words of someone else who says it better than me
– Josef Beuys, whose idea of social sculpture has been a big influence:

“Here my idea is to declare that art is the only possibility for evolution, the only possibility to change the situation in the world. But then you have to enlarge the idea of art to include the whole creativity. And if you do that, it follows logically that every living being is an artist – an artist in the sense that he can develop his own capacity. And therefore it’s necessary at first that society cares about the educational system, that equality of opportunity for self-realization is guaranteed.”