CLOUD901: Teens Creating, Connecting, and Chilling at the Public Library

This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue III of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in July 2022.

As an artistic teen, East High School senior Tashi Richmond is fortunate to have access to a space that gives her all the creative tools she needs – paint, canvases, art supplies. Kaylyn Web, a junior at East High, used the same place to design a skateboard. Other teens have used this space to create short films, record music, and even construct robots.

The place is CLOUD901, a vibrant space created with Memphis teens in mind, located at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Branch of the Memphis Public Libraries. 

Imagine having all the tools you need as a teen creative to be successful in your present and future. Visual artist and CLOUD901 Youth Council Member Tashi Richmond has lived this reality for five years, since the eighth grade. And in February 2022, she took us on a tour of the teen space. 

Here, students can thrive and let all their STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, & Mathematics) go. Tashi takes advantage of the visual arts program offered at “The Cloud” (as the teens refer to it). On this cold Wednesday afternoon, before Ice Storm 2022 hit, she expressed that today is one of her “calm relaxed days.”  When asked about how she spends her time in the space and what she creates, she responded, “My art is more abstract. It’s unique. You look at it and it makes you wonder exactly what that is and what the artist was thinking…” She began her CLOUD901 journey when her sister was a student at East.  Visiting The Cloud daily after school is convenient because East is practically next door to the library. The accessibility works for her family’s schedule. “When school ends, I walk right over here.”  

“When school ends, I walk right over here.” East High School senior Tashi Richmond (photo Mark Fleischer)

As we reached the top of the stairs and made our way to the art space, the 17-year-old senior explained, “This is just for painting, anything art-wise, painting, sculpting.” Pointing to the art on the wall, “You see right there, those eyes, those are clay sculptures.” None of Tashi’s artwork was displayed at the time. She usually takes it home after she completes it. Empowered by the space and the freedom it lends, she elaborated on why she creates visual art: “Art is something, I feel like I can do… no one’s art is perfect…Art is one thing everybody can do without feeling like they don’t know what they’re doing.”  

Tashi explained a typical day for her in the space, pointing to the cool work area. “I’d sit here. I’ll probably get a piece of paper or canvas right there. The paints are all available in this cabinet and that cabinet, brushes, anything I can possibly need to paint, or do any kind of artistic thing that I want. If they don’t have something…I can always ask about ordering something. They don’t really say no. If you need something, they can always put in a request for it. They’re very reliable with your needs and wants and what you want to do.” She admitted that that was not always the case when she first started coming to The Cloud.

“It wasn’t as available as it is now. There were always limited supplies, but now, it seems like the supplies are endless.” She said she was basically just painting, due to the lack of materials and supplies, but since then “it has evolved a great deal.” 

When asked how COVID affected her creativity and time in the space, she responded with a little unintended humor about the long break. “Since the only time I could come here was after school hours, when COVID struck, and we went on what was supposed to be a two week long spring break that ended up being a year-and-a-half spring break, that threw everything off. 

She admitted that “the paint and chill” mode The Cloud offers, helps her. In a time when the world has drastically changed, she candidly noted:

“I suffer horribly under pressure and stress. So me using the art space was more of a stress reliever for me after a long day of school. After a long day of school, coming to The Cloud and being able to just unwind, and then paint what I want to paint without having to hear everybody’s opinions about what I painted, and only hearing positive feedback from the workers at The Cloud about what I’m doing and how my art looks that just helped me so much. I feel more confident. Actually, I feel very confident about my work and the stuff that I do with The Cloud because I know everything I do is perfect. Everything I did was enough. Well,  I wouldn’t say perfect because nothing’s perfect, but there’s no insults. There are some constructive criticisms. Everything is positive feedback. It really helps and makes me feel so much better about myself and the art I do here.” 

Tashi explained that the work that she created (with her sister) at CLOUD901 that she is most proud of is a piece that reminds her of tulips.  She used an abstract technique that she learned from her sister. “My mom loved it so much. She hung it on the wall [you see] when you walk in my house. [The painting] was an idea…we didn’t know exactly what we were doing. But we just knew we wanted to do it.”

Five years from now she plans to be a dietician, but she sees herself returning to The Cloud despite the age limit. “I know if I ever need to, I can always come back and get advice from anybody at The Cloud…sometimes even use the art space if I need it.” 

Another CLOUD901 Youth Council member who is creating, connecting, and chilling at the Cloud is Kaylyn “Lyn” Web, a junior at East High. She, too, is an artist. She says “I usually just hang out with my friends. This is the only area in the library where you can eat. So, I’ll come here…and we’ll all share food.” In addition to Cloud 901, she admits “The fourth floor of the library is one of my favorites. Unlike other people, I like reading history books because it’s really interesting.” 

During the summer, Lyn participated in a skateboard design program offered by The Cloud. “I really enjoyed it. So, I think I’m going to make another one.”  Lyn’s skateboard creation is on display in the glass window of teen space, and it was showcased in an exhibition event. The event as she describes, included “a self-care area with a meditation kit, and some nice blow up furniture, where kids could sit. There was a song recommendation board, with motivational quotes.” She has participated in community service projects, where her and other teens have picked up trash outside The Cloud. 

Kaitlyn Webb and skateboard she made at CLOUD901
Kaylyn (Lyn) Web shows off her skateboard creation (photo Mark Fleischer)

Lyn started coming to CLOUD901 this school year. She shared, “In 9th grade, I had really bad social anxiety. I had to be dragged in here by Tashi.”  Since she has been coming to The Cloud, she has come out of her shell. She also has had different opportunities and a lot of time to develop communication, organizational, and creative art skills. It has helped her to be more social with her peers, and it seems like she is stuck there now. Lyn says different helpful resources like ACT Workshop and college readiness tips are also shared at The Cloud. 

She likes painting cartoon-like characters. Her signature is three spiky eyelashes and droopy eyes. She also creates realist art. She says, “I’ve translated my skills to using my tablet and stylus. So in addition to using watercolor on the paper, which is my favorite, I can create paintings in digital format. I don’t have to use as many materials, and I can also share it.” 

She also takes art in school, but said, “In middle school, you had to apply for a course, and I couldn’t get into it. I really love this Art Space because at school, we have assignments that we have to do. Since we have to do assignments, it’s kind of restrictive, unless we want to undo something outside of class. There’s much more opportunity to have your art displayed. Also, there’s more materials – different types of watercolor, gouache, acrylic, water-based, and oil-based paints and sculpting supplies. That’s not what we have at our school.” 

Lyn wants, “To motivate [other creatives] to come and check out CLOUD901 and use all the great resources. You never know who you will meet in here…I’ve met a lot of my different friends and also The Cloud staff.” 

Jessica Chaney, CLOUD901 Teen Learning Lab Manager, says the facility operates Monday through Thursday from 3 – 8 PM. They have about 40 kids that come in daily. depending on what is going on. “That number also flexes with our program. If “Crew Up” has an introduction to editing program, in addition to our 40, that might be another 20 plus that come in. So, I’ll just say, our average is about 60 a day.” 

Program Specialist David Mason (left) and Jessica Janey, Cloud 901 Teen Learning Lab Manager, talk about the robotics team (photo Mark Fleischer)

There are several other teen spaces in public libraries throughout the nation. CLOUD901 developers visited the West Coast, New York, and Chicago, and they modeled CLOUD901 on Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia teen space. Chaney said, “Chicago was already bursting out of the seams. They had about [as much square footage] as our ground floor, and they said, ‘Make it bigger.’ And so that’s what we did. Initially, we were just going to be on the first floor, but we bumped up to Humanities for the second floor as well.” She sees CLOUD901 as a model for other libraries in the country to follow. The San Diego Public Library came and did a study and now they have a teen learning lab. 

She continues, “We’ve consulted with the Las Vegas Public Library. We consulted with the library system out of New Zealand. Another director of libraries from Los Angeles County came in. Now they have the Octavia Butler space that opened [in 2019]. We have been a model, and those are just a few of the spaces that we have been influencing. We also have been an influence for St. Jude in building a Family Commons. We’ve had their Architects come in, and we consult with them. We’re also currently consulting with the Historic Melrose project that’s coming up through Housing and Community Development. The library system has several people who are part of the committee that’s working to redevelop that space. I feel like our work has touched quite a few systems across the country and some other places in our community, which is really great.” 

After surveying several teen library spaces throughout the country to create what is now CLOUD901, an exemplar teen space and now consulting with others to develop similar spaces, Chaney says CLOUD901 is the best of them all. She explains “First of all, we’re the largest…We were very intentional around including our youth stakeholders when building this out. They’re the ones that wanted the studio. They’re the ones that wanted the video lab, the art. Being able to really dig in and get those youth voices around the table to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what attracted us to the library. This is what would engage us.’ I think it is one of the things that really sets us apart.” 

She also attributes the program’s success to growth, streamline programming, and partnerships. “Getting serious about partnerships and how they wanted to cultivate those to be able to produce quality filmmakers, storytellers, artists and people. We said, okay, let’s strip some fat away and really get some meat on this.”

Cloud 901 has held coding hackathons, Live.Seed poetry workshops, and a host of different programs. “There are youths who are going to different schools. They may not have ever known each other had it not been for being able to be in our space,” she explains as she stands in “Homework Central.”

Chaney points out that the two most utilized and impactful programs are the audio lab and the robotics program. “We have a community robotics team. It is under the first umbrella, which is for inspiration and recognition of Science and Technology. We’re a competitive robotics team. We have staff members and mentors who work with youth.” She mentions “The Light Touch” program is a hit as well. It offers youth the opportunity to just pick up something and explore.

COVID-19 had a major impact on their programming. According to Chaney, “When we first started, CLOUD901 was actually implementing teen services in libraries across the system.” Since the pandemic, virtual programming has been the biggest thing that has happened at The Cloud. Chaney explains, “There is no barrier to transportation. I think that it has been the biggest upside to being able to, or having to, do virtual programming. Now with our summer camps, we did them virtually. We had kids from out of state who were in the program…We have talented teens all over Memphis, teens that are not in a walkable area where they can commute on their own. Virtual programming is an opportunity for them to engage in activities.” 

The youth council does peer-to-peer work to get the word out about CLOUD901 since teens are more likely to come because of their friend, not “because Miss Jessica invited them to come.”  “We’re probably going to just relinquish most control of our social media to them because it’s them and their voice speaking to their peers that’s really going to continue to get people in.” 

Although there is no CLOUD01 in every Branch, there is a dedicated person or team that is interested in developing quality teen services. Additionally, Raleigh has a family learning lab area. The Cossitt and Frayser branches have also come on board. Chaney says, “They’re going to have podcasting, camera equipment, and other tech that will be available to not just teens, but adults as well.”

Leading in top-notched technology and creating community for active youth, CLOUD901 is the pillar of teen spaces in the country and beyond. It is the prototype for planning, programming, and providing a productive space for techy and talented teens.

This article is part of the Behind the Arts Writers Workshop, made possible by an Arts Build Communities grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission and administered by ArtsMemphis.

Jeanine Jones is a small P.E.A. (Poet, Educator, Author) in a big pot, packing a lot of flavor.  She loves the arts and uses poetry as her gel to make literacy stick. She has written five books and plays, including We Can All Decorate the Same Tree.

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