When the Overture Center needed a flyer for its program to offer students and teachers $10 tickets to selected performances, it knew just where to turn.
"We wanted to use work from someone who could benefit from the program," says Beth Racette, coordinator of Overture's community and education programs. "We put out a call to Mess Hall Press."
Mess Hall Press, run out of the Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St., gives area young people a unique opportunity to work with some of the craftiest designers in the graphics industry.
Professional artists, graphic designers and communications specialists volunteer their time to work with area middle and high school students, ages 13 to 18, to produce promotional materials.
"It's such a win-win program," says Racette. "Young artists are learning to create pieces that are actually seen and have a life connected to events, parties and dances."
The teens, including some from the Oregon and Middleton school districts, have produced everything from posters and menus to T-shirts and skateboards for a variety of causes, including the Madison Area Music Awards (MAMAs), Wisconsin Books to Prisoners Program and the newly opened Ironworks Café.
Patrick Masters, 19, produced an illustration for the Overture Center's Take 10 discount ticket program. He worked with Overture staff to sketch out ideas. The final version, unveiled in 2007, pictures a group of teens sitting in the front row of a theater with another student doing a cartwheel into the audience. He still carries a copy of it with him.
"What was really so cool for me is I got to be a professional illustrator for a couple of weeks," says Masters, a home-schooled student now enrolled full-time at Madison Area Technical College. He's working on an associate's degree as a fire protection technician and completing an internship at the Maple Bluff Fire Department so he doesn't have to depend on art for a paycheck.
Despite his busy schedule, Masters returns to Mess Hall Press as a volunteer.
"It's that little extra reward," he says. "You teach someone something new or learn something new yourself."
For two years, Emma Hastil, 17, a senior at Oregon High School, has taken advantage of the free two-hour sessions beginning at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays.
The experience has paid off, in more ways than one: Hastil recently received acceptance letters from the School of Visual Arts in New York and the San Francisco Art Institute. She credits the instructors at Mess Hall Press for helping her chart a course to her future.
"There aren't graphic design classes at my school," she says. "It's helped me decide on my major and a career."
The Mess Hall Press was founded by Scott Pauli, 33, a designer at an advertising and communications agency called Good for Business, and Zach Kaiser, 24, a graphic designer at Timpano Group, a consulting firm.
The two, along with other area graphic designers and writers, are volunteers.
The Wisconsin Arts Board provided $1,200 to launch the effort in 2004. Since then, Mess Hall Press has completed more than 100 projects.
Pauli urges the teens not to rely too heavily on computers. "A lot of what we do is hand draw," he says. "It's the most organic way to think about graphic design.
"Just because the computer can twist it or give it a shadow effect doesn't necessarily make it right. It's better to get back to the basics of hand drawing."
Kevin O'Malley, communications manager at TomoTherapy, a Madison-based company that designs and manufacturers cancer radiation equipment, stresses the virtue of originality.
"A lot of things look the same and become trends, but look really hackneyed," he says. "A lot of times graphic design is too polished. It becomes driven by what the computer allows you to do.
"It's better if kids learn to use their imaginations."
Mess Hall Press students designed posters for the sixth annual Madison Area Music Awards set for Saturday, May 9, at the Barrymore Theatre. The glitzy evening - an imitation of the glamorous Grammy Awards - is a fundraiser to provide music programs and instruments for kids.
The poster is a caricature of a musician whose body is made up of various musical instruments. It was, says Pauli, a collaborative effort: "Rather than have one student dominate the project, everybody worked on drawing different instruments, and we put them together."
Rick Tvedt, the nonprofit group's executive director, couldn't be happier with the result.
"We loved what the kids came up with," he says. "It's so clever and ties in with our mission for kids. We hope to animate that figure for the awards show."
And since the students donated their efforts, they will get to attend the event - as VIPs.