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Public Display of Perception

Schoolkids startle their elders with art of unexpected power.

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For six days in June the future of art in Chicago hung on the white walls of a musty third-floor gallery on the near west side.

That's where sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from 11 public elementary schools displayed their works, an array of sculpture, collages, paintings, and videos that surprised even the show's organizers with the depth and promise it revealed.

"The richness of the work--the depth of expression and imagination--it's all so staggering," says Cynthia Weiss, an artist who curated the show with Judith Burson Lloyd. "I wish the whole city could see this. Next year we should open the show to the public and have it run for more than a week. I wish they could see the great talent in the public schools that's so often overlooked or never nurtured and developed."

The show was the result of nine months of preparation by teachers, artists, and not-for-profit arts-education groups headed by Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education. Last fall they began meeting to design a way to give greater meaning to arts education. It wasn't enough just to have children take art courses (and as it is, not every child in the public schools gets to take art each year). They wanted students focused on a goal. By the end of January they had decided to bring the 11 schools together for a massive show on the third floor of the School of the Art Institute's warehouselike exhibit space at 847 W. Jackson.

In January artists were assigned to work with students and teachers from the following schools: Bright, Cesar Chavez, Field, Hope, Washington Irving, Jenner, Manierre, Mozart, Ni–os Heroes, Pulaski, and Waters.

"We settled on one theme, 'spiritual passports and transformative journeys,'" says Weiss. "We decided that would be appropriate because middle-school kids are going through their own transitional life changes."

The projects varied according to the talents and styles of the artists and teachers. For instance, students from Manierre, a Near North school, worked with video artist Deirdre Searcy to create a collage of "identity poems" put together from headlines sliced from daily newspapers. At the heart of the work was a poem arranged against a bare white wall to read: "I am a strong black female with stride / I am a understanding female with pride / I am not no sex object / I am not your name / I am not who you want me to be / I am me."

The students from Waters, in Albany Park, worked with artist Edith Altman to create an installation called 1,000 Planes for Peace. "Edith was talking to the children about how she fled from Europe during the Holocaust, and many of the students related that they had fled from Bosnia," says Weiss. "They discovered they had to confront some of the same experiences at the same young age."

Their exhibit consisted of a thousand paper airplanes decorated in polka dots, stripes, and shades of blue, red, orange, green, and brown. The planes, which were either clumped in piles on the floor or hung from long strings clinging to pipes on the ceiling, bore messages like "stand proud, speak loud, overcome the rage, break open the cage."

In the stillness of the museum they were a powerful sight.

The students from Hope Academy, in Englewood, employed bright colors and abstract shapes in a style developed by aboriginal artists to create moving themes of loss and love. "For many of our students, school is like a refuge," says Linda Owens, a seventh-grade teacher at Hope. "They come to school and they'll tell us horrible stories of death or pain. And we have them release those feelings in these paintings."

Like most of the other young artists on display, Hope's students weren't afraid to be honest about their frailties and vulnerabilities. "I don't mean this as a put-down of students at the Art Institute, but in many ways this show is a very refreshing contrast to shows over there," says Weiss. "These kids are much more direct. They're using art to make a direct connection to their lives. There is no studied sense of irony or cynicism here. It's all much more real and spontaneous.

"These are not abstract drawings for the sake of it--they have meaning. The kids worked hard with their teachers and their artists. They thought about what they wanted to do. They're reaching for a greater purpose with colors and shapes."

Perhaps the most moving exhibit in the show was by the students from Jenner, a school a block from the high rises of Cabrini-Green that is confronting wholesale change. As the high rises fell apart and vacancies went unfilled, the Chicago Housing Authority decided there was no point in saving these buildings. Two have already been cleared and several others are slated for demolition. What has been a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood since the 1950s will undoubtedly become upscale and white.

"We've been going through our own transformative journey," says Matt Schergen, the school's art teacher. "I watch the buildings get torn down every day. The kids look out the window and say, 'That's where I was born,' or 'That's where my grandmother lived.' The school, built for 1,110, is down to about 510. It feels empty, like a ghost town. Change is everywhere."

Schergen and the students decided to preserve the community in a series of shadow boxes. "As I was starting the project, we talked about the transformative journey we were watching before us--the demolition of a neighborhood," says Schergen. "I took photographs of buildings and ran them off on a copy machine. I figured they would want to work with different images of the demolition. But the general reaction of the kids was, 'I'm not putting that in my box.' I guess they thought this was a pervasively negative sense of Cabrini. They were telling me, 'No, I want this to be a beautiful thing.'

"It's funny, I had gone to Home Depot to get sand and stone, stuff used in demolition. And they started using it more decoratively in ways not related to construction at all. I dipped into my closet and brought out whatever I could find to help them decorate the boxes, and they used everything from seashells to beads. One kid drew a beach scene that shows a hut and a path leading to the water's edge. Some created tributes to family and friends who had died."

It took Schergen and his students almost six months to complete the boxes. "We started from scratch, starting with how to hold a hammer when we made the boxes," says Schergen. "It was a communal thing. I'd be sitting on the floor with eight kids around me pounding away. Then we had to prime the boxes. Then we sectioned them off with wood strips and decorated them. Other teachers got involved. Parents came in and built their own boxes. It was a project of great pride."

Eventually Schergen and several students brought the boxes to the gallery and assembled them on top of one another so that they resembled the high rises being destroyed. "It was amazing when we were done," says Schergen. "We had gone to a higher level of artistic expression. You had to be there to appreciate that feeling of tremendous accomplishment."

During the first week of June, students from the schools came to the gallery to view the show. On June 4 the students from Jenner took their peers from Hope on a tour of the shadow box exhibit. "I wanted to show the nature that's all around my neighborhood--I didn't want to draw the city," explained Deon Irvin, a sixth-grader who constructed a beach scene. "This symbolizes the Oak Street beach, where we go to get away from the projects."

Robert Griffin, who has children at Jenner, proudly displayed a box he made, which paid tribute to a high rise at 502 W. Oak. "I grew up in the area. I lived there all my life," Griffin says. "A lot of memories are tied to that community."

Seventh-grader Evelyn Jones recited a passage she'd written. "The color black is like chocolate with beautiful faces," she read. "People say white kids are better than black kids. I think that's false. I think that's bull. What can one kid do that's so different that the next can't do?"

Afterward, Weiss and her colleagues were elated. "It's hard to think of next year because it was so exhausting to put this show on, but I hope we can do it again," says Weiss. "We can't lose the momentum. The kids can't afford to do art one year and then never again. We have to keep coming back. There's tremendous talent in the city--we have to be there to nurture it. We can't afford to lose it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Matt Schergen photo by David V. Kamba.

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