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Young artists of Van Go unveil benches commissioned for clients

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When Ian Hoopes pulled the cover off of his 2022 Van Go Benchmark piece, he wasn’t just unveiling a piece of art — he was unveiling a piece of himself. 

The lifesaver featured at the center of the bench, one of 19 unveiled Friday, was designed and painted by Hoopes. It was originally reflective of the group that hired him, the Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County. But during the entire artistic process, it also became a symbol of how Van Go had saved him over the last four years.

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“Van Go has taught me how to express myself. My actions affect others,” Hoopes said in a speech before the unveiling. “I truly believe if I didn’t work here and learn the things that I have, I would have continued to dig that hole until it collapsed on top of me.”

The annual Van Go Benchmark summer program is the youth art center’s flagship program, where artists ages 14-18 are paired with clients to create a custom bench. Many benches are featured in local businesses or homes, and they can be found in a variety of locations. Next year’s Benchmark plans to feature the first ever international bench.

The Benchmark process includes meeting with the clients commissioning the bench, making blueprints and editing them, and finally, creating the bench.

“Our youth learn how to take an idea, step by step, from concept to creation, in eight short weeks, meeting deadlines all along the way,” Van Go Co-Executive Director Kristen Malloy said. “The summer session also includes the all-important bench client meetings in which the youth learn interviewing and presentation skills, how to receive feedback and how to act with professionalism.”

Hoopes, who graduates from the Van Go program this year, worked with Dr. George Thompson, executive director of the Douglas County Treatment and Recovery Center, to design the bench, which features imagery meant to describe the feeling of being saved from a crisis — something Hoopes could relate to during the process.

Hoopes described how undiagnosed ADHD, anxiety and depression had dug him into a hole of feeling alone. But Van Go helped him find a community of people and a place of expression that saved him.

“I realized that this is all traditional recovery imagery,” he said. “It became more of a personal reflection to me.”

Thompson said the personal connection could be seen in the artwork. That type of connection to the theme of recovery is exactly what he was looking for to be featured in the entrance of the new Treatment and Recovery Center.

“He made it personal, too, which people will feel. This bench will be right in the entryway, and I think like 4,000 people that are in crisis will come by that and be able to relate to some of those stories.”

Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Jafiya Birdling, far right, created a memorial bench for Cody Young. Cody’s mother (center), sister (left) and father (right) unveiled the bench.

Alongside Hoopes, fellow Van Go graduate Jafiya Birdling spoke about his experiences with the program.

His speech featured individual thank-yous to many staff members, bringing some to tears.

“Van Go is not a job to me; it has always been the highlight of my day and the place where I can express myself through art,” Birdling said. “When I walk through those doors I can expect a place that will challenge me, help me and motivate me to be the best person I can be today.”

Christina Craig / Lawrence Times The Van Go Benchmark benches are covered ahead of their unveiling, July 29, 2022.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Cornelio Ortego Perez and Michelle Loomis stand with a bench for Michelle’s late husband, Burdett Loomis.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Van Go’s Co-Executive Directors Eliza Darman and Kirsten Malloy speak to the crowd at the Van Go Benchmark unveiling.
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Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Rhylea Dailey receives an award for 100% attendance from Jennifer Roth, president of the Van Go Board of Directors.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Artist Katie Hall unveils a memorial bench for Elisabeth Spainhour.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Artist Davon Davis, right, shakes hands with Kevin Wilmott, an Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter and KU professor.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Artist Oliver Elwell unveils a memorial bench for Tudy Youngberg.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Artist Barack Bennett-Robinson created a bench for Pretzels Inc.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Artist Joli Taylor-Borge created a memorial bench for Dawn Willard.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Artist Tabitha O’Konski created a memorial bench for Kristi Switzer for Starside Elementary in De Soto.
Christina Craig / Lawrence Times Artist Anamaria Taylor, left, prepares to unveil her bench for Ad Astra Eye.

The artists and clients featured in this year’s Benchmark ceremony were:

  • Barack Bennett-Robinson — Pretzels, Inc.
  • Jafiya Birdling — Memorial bench for Cody Young
  • Gus Cordova — In honor of Bob Dinsdale
  • Rhylea Dailey — J. Wilson’s
  • Davon Davis — In honor of Kevin Willmott, sponsored by Kay and Tom Carmody
  • Oliver Elwell — KU Endowment in memory of Tudy Youngberg
  • Katie Hall — Memorial bench for Elisabeth Spainhour
  • Asha Hanson — Commissioned as a surprise gift
  • Ian Hoopes — Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County, sponsored by Shade Little
  • Tiffany Jimboy — Rose Foster, a gift from friends
  • Tabitha O’Konski — Starside Elementary in memory of Kristi Switzer
  • Cornelio Ortega-Perez — Memorial bench for Burdett Loomis
  • Weston Pilgram — Jo and Jerry Portillo 
  • Ariel Sellars — Tenants to Homeowners
  • Anamaria Taylor — Ad Astra Eye
  • Joli Taylor-Borges — LMH Internal Medicine in memory of Dawn Willard
  • Gracelynn Williams — The Raven Bookstore, sponsored by Bev Wilson
  • LeStat Wilson — NEU Physical Therapy, sponsored by Bev Wilson
  • Munira Yunusah — In honor of Maarten van Swaay
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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of this work for the Times here.

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