By Sam Woods Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Sep 02, 2023 at 10:01 AM

Milwaukee’s young people are demonstrating what happens when artistic talent is nurtured from a young age.

“Soulmate,” a short film about a young woman’s journey through poetry and art before meeting her soulmate at his wedding, was made almost entirely by local high school students.

The film is based on a poem of the same name by Brit Nicole, a Milwaukee-based creative, spoken-word artist and “Renaissance woman.” Nicole wrote the poem 11 years ago, and it earned a spot on her spoken-word album “Nocturnal Butterfly” and book “Moods, Melanin and Magic: A Manifesto” before serving as the basis for the film.

But, for Nicole, what makes the film special is that, while it was based on her poem, almost all of the creative choices – from scriptwriting to cinematography to the color scheme of the actors’ outfits – were made by student interns at Arts @ Large with guidance from Milwaukee creatives.

Arts @ Large provides opportunities for artists to engage with schools and the community.

Training the next generation

Nicole said providing an opportunity for the next generation is the perfect use for her art, because it can act as a catalyst for future Milwaukee-based artists.

“We are where we are because of the people who influence us,” she said.

The film is about 10 minutes long and opens with aerial shots of Milwaukee before featuring the film’s main characters as they slowly converge toward their destiny at a wedding.

As Nicole’s poem begins with the line, “I met my soulmate at his wedding today,” the film presents a similar situation where love between two people is seemingly found at a wedding, but with only one of the parties expecting to be married that day.

From idea to film

When Nicole was getting started as a poet, she only wanted to perform poetry live. No books. No albums. No films.

“I said: 'You’re not getting a book; you’re not getting an album. If you didn’t hear me live in living color, I guess you didn’t hear me,’” Nicole said.

After the release of her book in 2021 and album in 2022, Nicole and her friend Dasmond McMillan were discussing what to do next.

McMillan, co-founder of On What Studios and a mentor to students studying graphic design at Arts @ Large, remembers a conversation they had where they had the idea to make a short film.

“We were on a couch talking about how to promote Brit. At first, we were going to make ‘Soulmate’ into a music video,” he said.

But when the two took the idea to Symphony Swan-Zawadi, an interdisciplinary artist and the senior director of programs at Arts @ Large, they left with a plan to turn the poem into a film made by Arts @ Large interns.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, now we’re talking,’” McMillan remembered thinking at the end of this conversation.

Swan-Zawadi then set to work building an internship program for high school students around the creation of the film. The program included five artistic tracks for students to choose from: scriptwriting, filmmaking, digital arts, fashion design and the business of art.

From there, interns met every Tuesday from the beginning of the internship in October to the film’s premiere in April.

Creativity and collaboration

From the beginning, it was important to Nicole, McMillan and Swan-Zawadi to bring in Milwaukee-based creatives to mentor interns throughout the project and to provide professional advice along the way.

Community partners included Nicole and McMillan, who mentored the writers and graphic designers; On What Studios’ other co-founder, Marquise Wright, who mentored videographers; Iris Acevedo from Mount Mary University and Sew House Sewing and Apparel, who mentored the fashion design students; and Lilo Allen from Bronzeville Collective MKE, who mentored students about the business of art.

“Collaboration, for me, is huge,” Swan-Zawadi said. “This didn’t just happen because of Arts @ Large. It’s a true testament to what collaboration looks like.”

Nicole said too often, adults go out of their way to discourage young artists. Through projects like “Soulmate,” she’s correcting that trend and giving young artists the guidance they deserve.

“I flourish because I sow seeds,” she said. “What we’re doing here, they will never forget.”

Alana O’Quin, a high school senior during the production of the film, received a scholarship from Arts @ Large to pursue art in college. She was part of the writing team who worked on the film’s script.

O’Quin said her favorite parts of the project occurred after she worked with the other groups to bring the script to life.

“I liked the collaboration part the most,” she said. “I just like meeting new people, seeing different people’s perspectives and making it all work.”

Alexandria “Alex” Wanyee, also a senior in high school during production, was in the digital arts track at Arts @ Large and involved in graphic design for “Soulmate.”

Wanyee said she loved the process of turning words from the script into visually palpable emotions. She said the project helped her get out of an artistic funk she had been in since returning to in-person learning at school in 2021.

“I had very bad artist block after going back to school and couldn’t really express myself through art like I used to,” she said. “This (film) inspired me to get into more art-related opportunities.”

For more information

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

In addition to watching the movie, Nicole and McMillan encouraged those interested in supporting work like this to donate to programs like Arts @ Large.