Photo copyright 2018 Sierra Gillard, used with permission from photographer and subject.
Here’s a story worth telling, about art and hopefulness.
Although I’m a fine art painter in my own right, I’ve increasingly found satisfaction in facilitating “non-artists” in the enterprise of art making. I’ve developed an inclusive process by which virtually anyone, including small children and people with physical or intellectual disabilities, can be a participant in creating a compelling, monumental artwork. (Of course, skilled artists are welcome as well!) This process necessarily involves large numbers of people.
My most recent story began with a discussion I had with one of my daughters last Christmas. She and her husband were visiting for the holiday, and I wanted to hear about her new job in Indianapolis. She was teaching at an inner city school there in a pretty rough environment. She recounted that one of the students had been shot over Thanksgiving break, and that when school resumed, fights had been breaking out over the incident.
The high school where she was teaching had combined two different high schools for the current school year. Then at the close of the school year, these high school students were going to be moved again, and the school was to become a middle school for the next school year.
My daughter recounted conversations she had with students during a time of sharing thoughts. She told me that pretty much across the board the students feel like nothing they do matters to other individuals. Certainly not nationally, but not even locally. Their voices don’t matter. What they do doesn’t matter.
Pointlessness and hopelessness are not good ingredients for creating a culture of life. Especially for a demographic that has a lot stacked against it.
I wondered out loud about how something like the Fire & Ice Festival murals would go over at her school. For the past 2 years, the small church I attend had been helping me put on these big art-making events, each culminating in a giant public mural. The point of the process is that each individual paints a small square of the larger picture. Each tile bears the personal expression of the individual, while contributing to a larger mural that the entire city can enjoy – a colorful metaphor for community.
We envisioned the possibility that the Arlington High School (AHS) students could see such a mural as both a legacy that they could leave to the incoming middle school students, but also be a way that they could leave their individual mark in a creative, positive, and lasting way. It seemed like these students could use something that would feed their souls; to be part of something big and meaningful. I understood that the staff and teachers at AHS already work hard to deliver this, and this seemed like something that I could contribute, even if from a distance.
I cautioned my daughter that it would be a ton of work for her, but she took it on. She ran it past her principal and then the staff. Even without being able to fully know what was coming they said “yes.” I ran the idea past my pastor to see if our church, Beggars’ Gate, would be willing to cover the cost of my time. The high school would cover materials, installation, and its own time. It was now officially a collaboration between a little church in Loveland, Colorado, and a large high school in urban Indianapolis, Indiana.
The school principal approved a design bearing a likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., which was fitting for this year because 2018 is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s tragic assassination.
I completed my part and shipped off over 750, six inch square, prepped and coded tiles to Indianapolis. As the painting began at AHS, the students got into it and so did the staff. My daughter had a friend come in and DJ the painting area to create a good atmosphere. Good things happened. Creativity flowed. Dancing ensued.
Some kids, “hall-walkers” who have not been able to find their place in an academic setting, found their place in this setting.
At least one kid who is artistically gifted spent over 2 hours on his 6 inch square tile. He said it was the first time he had used paint.
A Behavior Specialist on staff said, “You know what? If we would’ve done this earlier in the year, I think our kids would’ve done better. It’s inspiring. I’m inspired!”
As the individual painting was going on, no one really knew what was coming. A few kids snuck their tiles out, presumably because they didn’t want to give them up. But when the seemingly random pieces all came together and went up on the wall, the result was spectacular. A lot of hugs were exchanged.
Congrats to Principal Law and the staff and students at Arlington High School – you did a great job! Thank you Beggers’ Gate Church, for your support!
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Mural, painted by the students and staff of Arlington High School. Formatted by Scott Freeman, 2018. (12.5 x 25.5 ft)
Obviously, a mural is not going to solve anyone’s problems. But if, at least for some students, it provided even some sense of being part of something transcendent; of having a unique place in community; of seeing themselves as being mentors to younger kids; of creative potential breaking out; then I think that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s about the most we can expect from art.
Find your place in the bigger picture
Getting a vision? Contact me about bringing an experience like this to where you are.
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.