Levern Nichols

Artful Innovation

Levern Nichols is building the creative arts program he wishes he had as a kid.

By Jessica Bizik
Photography by Justin Ross

Levern Nichols Jr., sees the kid in everyone. For example, when a friend is upset — say, struggling over whether to quit her job — he’ll ask her this question: “What would 8-year-old Emily think about this situation?” 

Vern believes all our hopes, dreams, fears, strengths and limitations are in some way rooted in our childhood. That’s why he’s developing Passing Art Through Children’s Hands (P.A.T.C.H.), a platform for delivering arts-based workshops to fourth through eighth graders in Baltimore City (and eventually the world), with the goal of helping them build self-awareness and sustainability regardless of their socioeconomic status.

“Growing up in West Baltimore, my passions were not reinforced at home or in the community,” says the Morgan State University graduate, who is currently pursuing his master’s in Education Entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania. “Statistically speaking, being a drug dealer, incarcerated, or dead were on the menu. There were no positive influences to help me express my pain and frustrations — and it was really hard evolving from those circumstances without any creative outlets. P.A.T.C.H. is extremely important to me, because I was once that child in need of encouragement and support.”

While the program is still in its infancy, Vern is committed to incorporating social emotional learning (SEL) and restorative thinking practices into the curriculum, in addition to giving kids the opportunity to work with all different types of artistic mediums and mentors from their own community. 

“Many of the activities will be self-directed to help students become confident, independent thinkers, but we will work hard to ensure they feel connected and supported by the larger group,” says the kindhearted innovator, who previously served as a patient companion at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

In 2018, he and some fellow artist-friends also traveled to Gambia Africa to deliver three 50-pound barrels filled with art supplies to the Model School Farafenni, in a project aptly titled “50 Gallons of Art.” Vern was incredibly moved by this experience, from the moment he and his friends arrived at the school, where the kids greeted them with cheers, hugs, and even made up a song with his name in it.

“Visiting Africa was very emotional for me, because that’s my history. But also, when you travel, you realize art is seen from very different perspectives,” he says. “Like in Gambia, art is primarily a craft used for survival; something you do to feed your family. In America, it’s often used more for self-expression and mental health. Both are important and will be included in P.A.T.C.H., but here the sustainability piece will be more about helping kids see how art and design thinking can lead to career opportunities, like entrepreneurship and social impact.”

Vern also plans to emphasize cross-cultural education as part of the program — and, if funding allows, he hopes to take Baltimore students on a trip to Africa. But his primary goal is to simply alleviate some of the adult pressures often put on youth in underserved communities and give them a safe space to de-stress, design cool stuff, and dream. 

So what is the former construction manager’s own dream for the future? “I’d really love to build a P.A.T.C.H. school someday. We just have to get the foundation right first.”