Story highlights

Adarsh Alphons' nonprofit, ProjectArt, provides free arts classes for New York City public school children.

Alphons is an artist who once presented his work to Nelson Mandela and the late Pope John Paul II

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New York CNN  — 

Growing up in India, Adarsh Alphons was expelled from school for doodling. He continued drawing in class at his new school, but there he got a different reaction.

“The principal said, ‘You know what? Just keep drawing in every class. Draw on the walls of each class. After you’ve finished the walls, go to the next class, draw on those walls. Paint the whole school.’”

Shortly after, Alphons had the opportunity to present a drawing to Nelson Mandela and later was commissioned by the Vatican to do a painting for Pope John Paul II.

Now an artist in New York City, Alphons was disheartened to learn that nearly three in 10 public schools lack even one full-time arts teacher. And across the country, when it comes to school budget cuts, arts programs are often among the first to go.

“Every child needs to have space for them to create,” said Alphons, who set out in 2011 to bridge the gap. “I decided we need to be the ones to put paintbrushes in the hands of kids.”

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His nonprofit, ProjectArt, provides free arts classes for New York City public school children. The group holds its classes in libraries, and at the end of each semester, the children exhibit their art in galleries.

Since 2011, ProjectArt has expanded from one branch in Harlem to a network of 11 libraries throughout the city. The group has reached roughly 1,000 children.

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I sat down to talk with Alphons about his motivation and his work. Below is an edited version of our conversation:

CNN: Why do you feel art is important for children?

Alphons: I believe art is essential to a well-rounded education because it lets a child learn things that they wouldn’t learn through other fields. It’s meditative, it’s reflective, but it also involves skill and hard work.

Nothing about a drawing or a painting is easy. In a world where everything is about exactly what you can reproduce, what you’ve learned and you study for the test, we need places where kids can discover who they are without the risk of making mistakes. They need a place that accepts them for who they are, that brings out a self-expression and beauty.

The lack of arts education is really an issue all over the United States, from Los Angeles to the South Side of Chicago to New Orleans. So we want to expand nationally. We’re going to add more branches in this city, and we want to add branches across the States.

A student shows off his artwork created at one of the free ProjectArt classes in New York City.

CNN: How do you decide where to implement your program?

Alphons: We’re looking at the public schools that don’t have any art teachers. We know where those schools are, and based on that, we open our classes in public libraries that are adjacent or near those schools.

Getting children into these libraries is brilliant, because libraries are really an institution that’s there to support them. And we want them to use the library facilities and to discover that there are community hubs where culture can thrive, where they can be safe, where they can learn and partake in its offerings in their own community. And with 207 branch libraries in New York City, one virtually in every neighborhood, it is possible to do that.

CNN: You hold exhibitions at the end of each semester. Why is it important for the students to display their work?

Alphons: It acknowledges the hard work the child put into it. It celebrates them, and it lets them know what’s possible if they chase after their dreams.

We hold our exhibitions in contemporary art galleries in New York’s art district. A lot of these families have never stepped foot in a Chelsea gallery, and now their children’s artwork is adorning its walls. It’s quite an amazing moment because the children are so proud of it.

They come dressed to the nines, and they point and talk to everyone. They show and tell their artwork to everyone who comes to the show, and it’s just an easy way to build pride in children.

Since 2011, ProjectArt has expanded to a network of 11 libraries throughout the city. The group has reached roughly 1,000 children.

CNN: You went from getting in trouble to meeting Mandela. What was that like?

Alphons: I felt like I got some validation. Someone believed in me. I took that belief, and I went back to my classroom. I was drawing well, but my grades also jumped.

And then I started to draw more, and I was making a drawing of Mandela. I went and showed it to my principal, and she said, “Actually, next month Mandela is visiting Delhi, and we have a delegation from our school going. You should come with us.”

Three years ago, I was being kicked out of a school, and now I was presenting a portrait of Mandela to Nelson Mandela, which is insane. But I was only able to do that all because my principal believed in me.

And that’s what I’m trying to do with ProjectArt. We believe in them, no matter what they do. Our goal is not to create artists. Our goal is to let kids discover themselves.

Want to get involved? Check out the ProjectArt website at and see how to help.