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A Cleveland arts nonprofit provides arts-centric lifeline to the city's underserved youth

MOCHA co-founder Antwoine Washington hosts a workshop with students from Sandusky High School.
Michael Russel
MOCHA co-founder Antwoine Washington hosts a workshop with students from Sandusky High School.

Antwoine Washington did not have much stability as a boy growing up in Pontiac, Michigan. He bounced from house to house, living with aunts and cousins while relying on his grandmother for support.

Washington used drawing to get through life’s darker periods. Reproducing his favorite cartoon characters — from Tiny Toons to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — soon flourished into a desire to perfect his craft.

Art’s power to heal and enlighten also inspired Washington to co-launch the Museum of Creative Human Art (MOCHA), a Cleveland nonprofit giving marginalized youth a safe space to create, learn and even start a career in the industry.

Washington founded MOCHA with friend and fellow Detroit native Michael Russell. The pair hung out as boys, working out together and playing basketball at the local community center. After reconnecting in Cleveland, they integrated Russell’s background in advising Black youth with Washington’s arts expertise to build a home for underserved students and young adults.

Michael Russell, left, and Antwoine Washington launched MOCHA to connected Cleveland’s underserved youth to the arts.
Lynn Rodemann
Michael Russell, left, and Antwoine Washington launched MOCHA to connected Cleveland’s underserved youth to the arts.

“We wanted a way to tie those things together and expose young people to art,” said Washington.

Although MOCHA did not become a nonprofit with 501c3 tax status until 2019, the organization has been providing its services since 2015, said Washington. Early days found the Richmond Heights resident teaching graphic design and fine arts fundamentals at the Stella Walsh Recreation Center in Slavic Village.

Today, MOCHA is still sharing the principles of visual art and graphic design, a curriculum covering art history, color theory basics and the simple rendering of the human form. Most of MOCHA’s charges are Cleveland-area children or young adults, though the duo has brought on eager students in their 70s as well. They have also traveled to Sandusky and other local communities to spread good will and arts education.

MOCHA makes classes as hands-on as possible, as its founders are not believers in “school after school,” Washington said. In practice, that means giving students time to put paint or pencil to canvas.

“That becomes therapeutic, because (participants) can share things that bother them or make them happy through their artwork,” said Washington. “So I start with those things and build from there and find out if art is something they want to do.”

Sharing the love

While Michael Russell enjoys art, his formative years were mostly focused on basketball. But the son of former Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward, and current Cavaliers broadcaster, Campy Russell does not want other young people to give up on their gift, an attitude that informs the “character development” side of MOCHA, he said.

Russell coached basketball at Collinwood High School for five years, a role centered on leadership skills as much as on-court aptitude. Years of mentoring, coaching and advising Black youth has translated at MOCHA to teaching the so-called “soft skills” — communication, teamwork and more — coveted by businesses of all sizes.

“The kids we work with may be graphic designers, or love to curate,” said Russell, who now lives in Solon. “We show them different opportunities in the arts ecosystem, or at least point them in that direction.”

Magnifying Cleveland’s diversity of artists is another centerpiece of the MOCHA mission. Part of an annual $50,000 budget — derived from local groups, including The Gund Foundation and Equity in the Arts — is given to artists to compensate them for their time, along with any exhibition expenses. Additional dollars are paid to arts instructors for coming in to teach a class.

Developing the next generation of minority artists means providing resources that may not be readily available, Washington noted.

“Foundations tend to give out small pots of money or put smaller and Black organizations in competition with each other (for funding),” said Washington. “When you do that, people who don’t get the money feel left out, and it breeds a scarcity mentality and starts to divide the community.”

Helping artists find their voice

Cleveland artist Aaron Williams compares MOCHA’s vital mentorship to having a cousin or big brother on his side.
Chris Petry
Cleveland artist Aaron Williams compares MOCHA’s vital mentorship to having a cousin or big brother on his side.

Cleveland artist Aaron Williams arrived at MOCHA as a paid intern, mostly working exhibitions and assisting the organization with tours. Williams also had a MOCHA-curated solo show where he brought metaphorical sports imagery to life with alcohol marker and colored pencil.

Williams’ work explores mental health issues that stem from his own experience with panic attacks and loss of loved ones. Trauma in Williams’ art may be indicated in individual dark pencil strokes, a healing outlet that has allowed the burgeoning creator to assert himself, he said.

“Prior to my first solo show, mental health wasn’t something I’d given much attention to,” said Williams, who works by day at the Zygote Press fine print studio. “I started to come under a direct relationship to it as my career was developing. Now it’s a way for me to continue the conversation, and destigmatize the fact that mental health is a thing.”

Check!, alcohol marker and colored pencil on Bristol paper. Artwork by and courtesy of Aaron Williams.
Aaron Williams
Check!, alcohol marker and colored pencil on Bristol paper. Artwork by and courtesy of Aaron Williams.

At MOCHA, Williams not only sharpened his fundamentals, he met a variety of artists and nonprofit officials who deepened his connection to the industry.

“I have people that really put the work in and are on the path I’ve envisioned for myself,” Williams said. “It’s reassuring, like having a big brother or cousin who explored an uncharted path. As a Black artist, it means everything, because a lot of the time we don’t have the resources to navigate (this world). We have to figure this stuff out on our own, because there are pieces that get left out. MOCHA has been great in providing those missing pieces.”

Williams' success story is one that Washington would like to replicate a hundredfold in the years ahead. A permanent classroom and gallery area — compared to bouncing from space to space as is the nonprofit’s current situation —would take MOCHA further along that path. For now, Washington just wants to reach as many new dream-makers as possible.

“My goal for everyone is to help them find their voice in the world,” said Washington. “We want to remain a resource for them and continue to help them through this journey.”

Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.