Project Runway meets All That meets a Wayans Brothers’ parody is how a TV executive might pitch Get Your Life!’s video projects—written, designed, directed, and performed by Baltimore City middle schoolers. Their visions are made a reality by Baltimore artists and the results are outlandish characters and astute takes on pop culture rendered in high definition. The work will make you laugh and maybe even feel nostalgic for the silliness of childhood games that started with “Pretend …”

One especially entertaining video, the centerpiece of GYL!’s exhibition at the BMA, is The REAL Artists of Get Your Life!. The story follows a reality show competition among artists with huge personalities. One character for instance attempts to bribe another by offering her a crystal glove.

Between the episodes are informercials as amusing as you think they would be when seen through the eyes of children and pre-teens. Exasperated, an on-air host selling gallon-sized bottles of perfume announces to the TV-viewing audience: “Please stop calling me, asking if it comes in other sizes. The answer is No.”

Lee Heinemann /
Photo by Maximillian Franz

GYL! emerged in 2014 from an extended relationship between artist Lee Heinemann and 901 Arts, the Better Waverly community art center. Hear more about the vital work GYL! produces:

BMA: Why did you start GYL!? How did it form and how has it evolved since its first year?

Lee Heinemann: I started GYL! with my collaborator Maggie Fitzpatrick in response to the energy and interests of the students we taught at after-school arts center 901 Arts. I came from a background of doing commercial art direction and producing work for other visual artists alongside working with kids. When I had to miss three weeks of art class to work on a TV show pilot, my 901 Arts students were like, “let us come help!” This moment made clear both that there was a shared interest in video amongst us all, and that I was spending a lot of my time and energy producing work for adults that was way less sophisticated, imaginative, and funny than what the art center kids were already bringing to class. GYL! began shortly after.

The project has evolved as everyone involved has developed a deeper understanding of what we are capable of, working together. The adult artists have learned how to make things and edit the videos in a way that the kids like and the kids have learned how to write and perform for the way that we film and edit.

BMA: What role do the adult artists play?

LH: Mirroring the way contemporary artists make work across the field, adult artists in GYL! work as project managers, producers, fabricators, and editors for artist kids. During the year, our dedicated mentor team meets with the GYL! artists weekly to develop ideas, work on props and costumes, cook dinner, take trips to see art, and film scenes. If someone has an idea that requires a specific skill—like an animated character, slow motion scene, etc.—we will find whatever expert is needed to execute.

BMA: How would you describe GYL’s exhibition at the BMA?

LH: GYL! has been producing work for ourselves and each other without the intention of showing in a museum context like this. This exhibition has provided us the opportunity to slow down and look at the work we’ve generated over the past several years and think about how to invite a larger audience into our practice. Many of the kids behind the works in the show (who are now high school students) were hired as consultants on the BMA project, working on designs for furniture, lighting, and displays that would best showcase their work.

BMA: Why use familiar story structures?

LH: We didn’t set out with a plan to work within recognizable forms, but quickly found that there is both a joy and power in parodying, reenacting, and restructuring something familiar. I think that our group is so fluent in the language of forms like reality tv, infomercials, and music videos that beginning with those frameworks has allowed for more imaginative and expansive narratives to take off.

BMA: What, if anything, has surprised you about working with middle school students?

LH: Young people, especially around middle-school-age, are constantly surprising. I think this is partially our fault—as adults—for maintaining such limited ideas of who young people are and how they can contribute to our lives and culture at-large. The kids in GYL! have continued to impress me with their nuanced understandings of contemporary culture, ability to create characters and stories that expand beyond existing tropes, and with their tenderness and care for each other.

Commons Collaboration: Get Your Life!, on view at the BMA through November 17, 2019, was organized by Zion Douglass, Maggie Fitzpatrick, La’Daya Galloway, Lee Heinemann, David Knott, Nia Knott, Luz Orozco, Anaís Perez, Anaijah Shaw, Tanaejah Shaw, and Stephanie Wallace. The accompanying publication was designed by Iris Lee.