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About three months ago, employees at Wamba Juice in downtown Medford were looking to spruce up a wall and brighten the room.

"We just wanted something that changed the energy in here," says Wamba Juice manager Tarren Mitchell.

The store's solution was literally just around the corner at a studio for LIFEArt — Live, Inspire; Freedom of Expression — a Rogue Valley art program that's at seven Jackson County schools and serves nearly 150 students. Program officials said OK and worked out a deal. Two weeks later, a landscape mural with an illustrated version of the cafe was finished. 

"They did a really good job," Mitchell says. "It really upgraded the inside."

LIFEArt's students were also hired to paint at the White City Skate Park, Pizza Schmizza in Eagle Point, and Leonard's Orchard in Medford. They have additional projects lined up, including a project for the Department of Human Services.

The program was originally intended to give at-risk students an artistic outlet, but founder Phil Ortega says the work is also helping students learn business prowess.

That includes brainstorming, meeting with clients, sketching out rough ideas, making changes as needed, keeping clients apprised of the work's progress, budgeting for supplies, and finishing in a timely manner.

"There's a lot of power in having kids walk through what that process is," Ortega says. "It's not just a wham-and-bam it's done. There's more time that's involved." 

North Medford High School student Adrian Chavez, 16, has been a part of five of the projects. His favorite one was the White City Skate Park because of the diversity of styles within the mural. He says students all contribute their own strengths to the finished product, making for a collaborative effort each time.

"It's been, overall, a cool experience," Chavez says.

Clients have been more than pleased with the results.

"It was a really nice project. It looks great,” Mitchell says. "We actually might have them come back in and do a little bit more."

Clover Leonard, co-owner of Leonard's Orchard, says she loves the new mural LIFEArt students painted on the side of her shop. Prior to reaching out to LIFEArt, she'd tried to commission some area artists but came up dry. After getting connected with Ortega, she says, the process of creating the mural — a piece depicting a sunset over mountains and orchards — was timely and professional.

"I got hooked up with the right group," Leonard says. "I loved seeing that shop be transformed into the whimsical colorful mural that it is.”

Ortega says the young artists are also learning about work ethic.

"It gives them a different sense of validation," LIFEArt mentor Nicole Paradis says. "Realizing their art can manifest into something tangible."

Money from the jobs has gone back into LIFEArt to continue paying for ongoing programs and gallery hours. A new gallery is set to open in Medford's Middleford Alley next door to Jackson Creek Pizza June 19. 

"It's a really good feeling," Chavez says. "It's really cool letting other people see your art." 

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

North Medford High School junior Adrian Chavez, left, Phil Ortega and Southern Oregon University junior Caroline Wasick celebrate the upcoming opening of the LIFEArt studio in Medford's Middleford Alley. Students from the art program have been working professionally in recent months, painting murals at local businesses. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell