Finding a Reason to Survive (and an unexpected seat at the Oscars)

Matt D'Arrigo '95

Matt D'Arrigo '95

Monday, June 17, 2013

Matt D'Arrigo '95 believes in the transformative power of art. He has felt its effects firsthand, and has seen it in the faces of those who enter the studio feeling defeated, and leave with a sense of release and empowerment.

D'Arrigo had always struggled in school, until one day his 6th-grade teacher complimented a drawing he created. His classmates gathered around the drawing, clearly impressed with D'Arrigo's skill.

"All of a sudden I was the artist in the class - I had an identity," he said. "It built my confidence and became my 'go-to' whenever I was feeling down or low."

During his freshman year at Spring Hill, D'Arrigo's mother and sister were both diagnosed with cancer. He took the following year off from school to help care for them, relying on his art and love of music to get him through that difficult time.

"I used to go up to my bedroom, close the door, put on music and paint. Everything would be better after that," he said.

It was then that D'Arrigo came up with the idea for A Reason To Survive (ARTS). If art and music could serve as a refuge for him, he surmised, then it could help other young people facing their own struggles. His mother, Pat, passed away later that year, in 1992; his sister, Kate, made a full recovery from lymphoma.

"I returned to Spring Hill knowing that I was going to create ARTS," said D'Arrigo, founder and CEO of the San Diego-based nonprofit.

After graduating from Spring Hill with a degree in fine art, the Boston native moved to San Diego in 1998 and worked for Pacific Event Productions, where he started out as a scenic artist for the Super Bowl XXXII pre-game and halftime shows.

In 2001, with $5,000 in donations, guidance from his father, Joe, and a book on how to start a nonprofit, D'Arrigo started an outreach program at the Ronald McDonald House. The program provided art projects for children and families who stayed at the house while receiving medical treatment at Rady Children's Hospital. The hospital heard about the program and asked D'Arrigo to start a program there as well. Thus, ARTS was born. Soon, a wide variety of community agencies began to request ARTS' services. By 2006, the program grew to 15 sites, facilitated by more than 30 trained artists and volunteers.

ARTS was founded on D'Arrigo's philosophy that art can heal and change lives. The center offers programs in visual arts, media, music, theater and dance for people ages 3-23 who are experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, poverty, terminal or chronic illness, foster care, incarceration, parents in the military, or severe physical, mental, emotional and behavioral challenges. The program's goal, he said, is for the youth they serve to become compassionate, creative human beings who make a difference not only in themselves but also in the world they live in.

"Kids are born with natural talents and passions. For some it's sports, others academics, or science, technology, etc. For thousands of kids it's the arts and creativity," D'Arrigo said. "It's a travesty that the arts are being cut in schools, and kids are denied being their true selves and using it as positive outlet. We're setting them up for failure if we try to plug them into other areas."

Based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in human psychology, ARTS employs a purposeful, sequential program model. The "Heal, Inspire, Empower" framework provides therapeutic arts programs, formal arts education, and then college and career preparation.

"The most rewarding thing is watching the transformation in the kids," D'Arrigo said. "It can be during one art workshop when a kid comes in sad and then leaves laughing or smiling with pride, or a major transformation over years of being in our program. Seeing kids finding joy and purpose is extremely rewarding."

In 2007, ARTS opened the 7,000-square-foot Pat D'Arrigo Arts Center, named in honor of D'Arrigo's mother. The ARTS center moved in 2012 to a new space in National City, Calif., one of the poorest areas in San Diego County. The new facility encompasses two buildings and has more than 20,000 square feet of creative space, including an industrial arts space, resource library, and performing arts building. The vision is for this space to become the ARTS National Training Center to coach others who want to do similar work in their own communities.

Spotlight on Inocente

When award-winning filmmakers Sean and Andrea Fine discovered the staggering statistic that 1 in 45 children in America is homeless, they wanted to make a film featuring a homeless teenage artist to create awareness of the issue. After a year of searching the country for their subject, they came across an article online about ARTS and phoned D'Arrigo "out of the blue."

"We have numerous teenage artists we serve, but as they explained the type of story they were looking for and type of teenager, Inocente popped into mind," D'Arrigo said. "Not only did she have an incredible story and was an incredible artist - but she was ready and willing to tell it, which was very important."

Inocente Izucar, who was 15 at the time, had been homeless for the last nine years. An undocumented immigrant, Inocente and her two brothers lived with their alcoholic mother. Their father had been deported for domestic abuse. The family was shuffled from one overcrowded homeless shelter to another, with the constant threat of deportation looming over them.

Inocente's art is a bright contrast to her dark past. Canvases explode with color; hearts, landscapes, animals and other creatures are embellished with jewels and buttons. Even Inocente's face, painted with swirls and dots, is another opportunity for artistic expression.

The 40-minute documentary, "Inocente," began filming in fall 2009 and follows the teenager for a year and half. If at any time Inocente or her family did not want to film, the Fines respected their privacy and shut down production for the day, D'Arrigo said.

"Told entirely in her own words," the documentary's website explains, "we come to Inocente's story as she realizes her life is at a turning point, and for the first time, she decides to take control of her own destiny. Irreverent, flawed and funny, she's now channeling her irrepressible personality into a future she controls."

D'Arrigo describes "Inocente" as "the little film that could." The documentary was shelved numerous times, and when it was finally released, it was rejected at the first couple of film festivals. "We were all devastated - and confused - because it was such a great film," he said.

But, then "Inocente" started getting picked up at film festivals and winning awards. MTV bought the television rights to the film, and it aired on the station last summer. In the fall, the Fines learned it was on the "short list" for an Academy Award, and in January it was nominated for an Oscar.

"We were thrilled!" D'Arrigo recalled. "That was enough for us, really. We didn't have expectations going into the Oscars. There were two heavy favorites and 'Inocente' wasn't one of them. So, we were just going have fun and enjoy the experience."

The Fines, D'Arrigo and Inocente, now 19, attended the Academy Awards on Feb. 24, 2013; and the little film that could took home the Oscar for "Best Documentary (Short Subject)."

"When they pulled Inocente's name out for the envelope, it was surreal," D'Arrigo said. "We all jumped and screamed - quickly followed by a lot of tears. To be in that theater with all these stars and seeing her up on that stage - there's not a word strong enough to describe how I was feeling. We all went to the Vanity Fair after-party and celebrated until the sun came up."

To learn more about ARTS, visit For more information about "Inocente," visit the documentary's website at

SAVE THE DATE: Matt and Inocente will be on campus Oct. 22 for a screening and discussion of "Inocente."

Matt D'Arrigo '95
Matt D'Arrigo and Inocente attend the 2013 Academy Awards.
Matt D'Arrigo '95 formed the nonprofit A Reason to Survive (ARTS) in 2001.
Inocente is shown with her artwork.