Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Edition 12 — Will Wiggins

Something Very Specific and Special

As a child and teenager, Artists For Humanity alum Will Wiggins loved anime and comics — both consuming them and creating his own. “I tried to blend American comics and anime together. I had my own comic book at that point, but it was all a very basic look,” he remembered. Wiggins has been passionate about drawing from a young age, saying, “I was always invested in getting better at art.” However, his understanding of the art world opened up after he started working at AFH.

Wiggins was a junior in high school when he learned about AFH two days in a row from two different people. First, he ran into a friend in Boston who told him about AFH, saying, “I’m working at this place where I get paid to draw and paint.” A day later, one of his high school teachers suggested that he check out the organization, as she knew that he loved to draw.

Wiggins got a ride to the studio from his grandma, where he met co-founders Rob Gibbs and Jason Talbot for the first time. “I started learning about everything they do at Artists For Humanity, and I was in love. There was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to work somewhere like AFH,” he said.

His first client project was a painting of clouds, which to this day is displayed in the Channel Street Building off of A Street in Boston. Wiggins remembered that Gibbs and Talbot began the project before passing it on to himself and his teen coworker and friend Nathan Waldron, who worked collaboratively on the piece. “It was nerve-wracking and there was pressure for sure. But it was a nurturing pressure and it was something I didn’t want to mess up,” he said.

With time, Wiggins grew to be comfortable at AFH. Although he remained in the Painting Studio for the duration of his apprenticeship, he made a point of exploring the other studios. “You could always take a break and go around the corner to see what people are doing and what kind of things are being made and how they’re doing it,” he said. He was amazed by all the different types of art that were created around him.

“There was always something new to learn and to experience,” Wiggins remembered.

AFH exposed him not only to new types of art — still life, graffiti, street art — but also to new ways of thinking about his craft. “I started going to museums, and learning about the artists who came before me, and why it’s important to have an understanding of what came before you,” he said.

He also gained technical skills and knowledge, such as a deeper understanding of color theory. In particular, he remembers learning how to paint the skin tones of different races and ethnicities. The process of learning this skill, he said, was bolstered by the diversity of AFH’s teens and staff. He explained, “I learned why, when you’re painting a Black person, you’re not just putting brown on the canvas and calling it a day. You’re utilizing a ton of different colors to create those skin tones and allowing the light and the shadows to really play off of each other.”

Wiggins also recalls the personal connections he formed with his mentors as central to his time at AFH.

He said, “A lot of my mentors were friends too, because we grew up in the ‘hood’, we grew up nerdy and loving video games and pop art and hip-hop music.”

Wiggins had, and still maintains, especially close relationship with Gibbs and Talbot. “The two of them are my rocks. Rob [Gibbs] used to give me haircuts and drive me home. He’s like my brother now,” he said.

After graduating high school, Wiggins went to Elmira College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York, where he studied art. He took classes in mediums ranging from printmaking to sculpture to digital imaging. Wiggins said he was once again awed by the vastness of the art world, and how much there was to learn. “My experience at AFH really prepared me for college, but still, there were so many things I needed to adopt on my own,” he remembered. He took a particular interest in graphic design, and began to learn more about the medium.

After college, Wiggins returned to AFH as an Assistant Mentor in the Graphic Design Studio, where he continued to learn, while simultaneously mentoring a new group of teens. He said he was motivated by the drive and talent of the other mentors, in particular, Mike Guadarrama. During his time as a mentor, Wiggins became proficient in software such as Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator, all of which he uses as a graphic designer today.

He formed close relationships with his mentees, paralleling the ones he had while he was a teen employee. “We would have conversations about games or music and I would forget that I’m their mentor,” he laughed. “Looking back, I know a lot of those people looked up to me because they tell me now, ‘yo, it was so cool to see you doing something successful with this.’ It was a really awesome feeling knowing that being their mentor and being their friend made them feel more connected to art and made them want to keep doing it.”

Wiggins now lives in California, where he works as a freelance artist. Previously, he was working for Teach Plus, an education nonprofit in Boston, as their Senior Design Coordinator.

He said that AFH changed the course of his life by showing him that it was possible to build a career in the discipline he loves. Without AFH, he thinks he would likely still be an artist but perhaps he would have pursued 3-D animation, which he is not as passionate about. “I might’ve gone down that path if I didn’t know there was a future for other things. My experience at AFH reinforced that there is a future for something I wanted to do more,” he said.

He is strongly invested in the longevity of the organization, saying, “There’s something very specific and special that happens at AFH that doesn’t happen in other places. It’s such an important part of not only Boston, but of young adult development.”

This is because, he explained, AFH gives young people an emotional outlet. “Having some way of exploring and expressing emotions can really help [teenagers] navigate life, even if they don’t become an artist,” he said.

Wiggins attributes the success of AFH to its unique model, which combines aspects of an after school program with that of a job. He noted that it teaches teens how to be good employees, by requiring that they arrive to work on time and are respectful of their colleagues. It also empowers teenagers by encouraging them to sell their own work and earn commissions. Simultaneously, he said, AFH offers forms of support that are more akin to an after-school program. “At a real job, they’re not going to give you a haircut [after work]!” he laughed.

He remains connected to AFH. Years after wrapping up his mentorship, Wiggins dropped by the studio to say hello and see what the teens and mentors were up to. He recalled how warmly he was welcomed, and said it brought his memories of AFH flooding back.

This visit eventually led to Wiggins co-emceeing AFH’s “Greatest Party on Earth” in 2016, the organization’s largest fundraising event. He was able to share how AFH had impacted his life and help raise money for the organization.

Wiggins said, “It validated all the work and sleepless nights I’d had at college and knowing so little prior to coming to AFH. It was a culmination of everything I had been through as a person and as an artist.”

Written by Lena Novins-Montague.

CREATIVE JOBS FOR CREATIVE TEENS