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What happens to history when stories are lost? And what is the artist’s role in saving and sharing stories? Students in Documentary Storytelling, a class taught by MECA Adjunct Instructor of Foundation Matt Frassica, worked through these questions while learning techniques for storytelling, narrative, and engagement in a partnership with the Abyssinian Meeting House on Newbury Street in Portland, Maine. This Second-Year Lab class, which is part of MECA’s Public Engagement curriculum, continued a long-term project and podcast in conjunction with the Abyssinian. As Professor Frassica described, “This oral history project is greater than just this class—it’s a means of connecting to the Maine African American experience, making sure the stories are heard, preserved, and honored.”
The third-oldest African American meeting house in the country, the Abyssinian was built in 1828 as a church and also served as a school and a concert hall before closing in 1917. Its members included abolitionists and leaders of the Underground Railroad. Students collected stories from the Committee for the Restoration of the Abyssinian as well as members of the African American community in greater Portland. In early October, the students —newly equipped with an understanding of story structure and the tools for engaging subjects—took a tour of the Abyssinian and began to ask questions. Frassica said the students had a profound experience: they were poignantly affected by the layers of history in the house and in their community. One student remarked that the Abyssinian was “one of the most peaceful places” they’d ever been. Others said they could really feel the presence of history. The building is currently in the process of being renovated and rebuilt; one can see these historical layers in the structure itself.
“There are not a lot of forms in which students and young people can connect to older people and ask them questions about their lives and experiences. It’s really valuable to create these kinds of connections,” Frassica noted. “Art students are learning how to use themselves as a source. This project allows students to make connections to a wider community. They’re able to use these skills of seeing themselves as part of something greater in this project in particular, but are also able to carry that knowledge forward as both citizens and artists in their own work.” Through a mix of practical skills and civic engagement, the students come away with a greater understanding of the Abyssinian’s impressive significance—for themselves and for their audiences. Their work will culminate in collected oral histories and live storytelling events in early 2018.
Other classes also developed community partnerships for studio-based learning. The students in Design Studio, a class taught by Adjunct Instructor of Graphic Design Drew Hodges, partnered with several organizations. Linked through the Maine Association for Nonprofits, MECA’s Graphic Design majors worked primarily with 501(c)3 organizations that had budgets under $100,000 on posters, branding, and typography projects. This connection served nonprofits who otherwise might not be able to afford specialty design services while providing students with real-world experience working with clients. Kirk Simpson ’18 reflected that the class was “both incredibly rewarding and challenging at the same time. Each student tears each project down, finding out what the audience’s needs are, what the client’s needs are, and what our own imaginations can bring.”
Drew pushed us beyond the design aesthetic and made us tap directly into the emotional connection each project and community partner needed. – Kirk Simpson ’18
Hodges founded Spot Design in 1987, which was followed by the launch of SpotCo, an innovative full-service entertainment advertising agency that has done branding work for large Broadway shows such as Rent and Hamilton. He said he modeled the class “on a working design studio with the students as designers and myself as creative director. Not every project is a nonprofit, but most are. Jessica Tomlinson, director of Artists at Work at MECA, has been a great help: she connected us with the nonprofits in Maine. We began by working on a 1984 reading for the organization One Book, Many Conversations. Next, we did a membership outreach for the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Finally, we moved forward with a poster for the D.L. Geary Brewing Company—with which MECA has a 16-year involvement—and worked with the Frannie Peabody Center for World AIDS Day on December 1.”
One Book, Many Conversations, a nationwide initiative that encourages dialogue by rooting it in the reading of a specific book, chose George Orwell’s 1984 for the 2017 project. The University of New England, the local sponsor for the project, selected Simpson’s design for the Southern Maine One Book, Many Conversations 1984 poster. Simpson attributed this success, in part, to his professor: “Drew pushed us beyond the design aesthetic and made us tap directly into the emotional connection each project and community partner needed. Through imagery and a strong attention to typography—and how it activated emotions—Drew brought his years of experience right to the core of what every student needed and how each one of us could successfully deliver a winning design.”
Jenna Crowder ’09 is an artist who works in installation, curating, and writing. She earned her BFA in Sculpture at MECA and has worked internationally on public and collaborative art projects. Jenna is currently a member of the Portland Public Art Committee and is a member artist at Pickwick Independent Press. She is the co-founding editor of the online arts journal The Chart.
Header: Drew Hodges, adjunct instructor of Graphic Design, leads a critique of posters in his Design Studio class. Photo by Kyle Dubay ’18.
Images Above, Top to Bottom:
Dennis Ross, president of WJZP 107.9, a local jazz radio station, was interviewed by students as part of MECA’s Documentary Storytelling class. Photo by Tia Doering ’20.
Students in Drew Hodges’ Design Studio class also worked with him on a rebranding project for WJZP. Jill Duson, who serves on the Portland City Council, was interviewed by students as part of MECA’s Documentary Storytelling class. Photo by Candice Gosta ’20.
This One Book, Many Conversations 1984 poster, designed by Kirk Simpson ’18, was selected to promote local community programming for the initiative.
Our goal is to have every student come to visit every exhibit, get to know the curators, be immersed in contemporary art, get to know the artists, and participate in conversations.
Erin Hutton ’98 is the Director of Exhibitions and Special Projects at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at MECA. In this interview, she reflects on the rich legacy of the ICA and her vision going forward.
Tell us a little bit about the background and legacy of the ICA.
Jennifer Gross was the first director of the ICA when it opened in the Porteous Building back in 1997. The vision at the time was to be a premier art space focused specifically on contemporary art, as there was nothing comparable in Portland then. David Ireland was the first artist to be showcased, and his dedication to working with students and interns helped to launch the premiere exhibit. The ICA directors, who also served as curators, have gone on to accomplish incredible things in the art world. Gross is currently the deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Mark Bessire is the director of the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, Cindy Foley serves as the executive deputy director for learning and experience at Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, Toby Kamps is the director of the Blaff er Art Museum at the University of Houston, Daniel Fuller is the curator at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and Lauren Fensterstock is an assistant professor in MECA’s MFA Program and a practicing artist. All kinds of school groups visit the ICA and use our exhibitions as part of their classroom experiences. We have programs that focus on youths, K-12, and other groups from colleges such as Bates, the University of Southern Maine, and Southern Maine Community College. We’re free and open to the public, so we really provide a service to the community.
What is your current vision?
Having been given this opportunity to honor the vision and legacy of the people who were here before me, I plan to move the ICA forward with a flexible curatorial model that will allow new voices to be included in this progressive, contemporary art space for years to come. My current vision is to really take off with this new model that allows me to be nimble and flexible through identifying and working with guest curators. At any one time, I can be working with nine different curators with nine different visions and levels of expertise. We provide a platform in an amazing facility to honor, support and promote a curator’s vision and what they want to produce. The ICA is always changing and continuously evolving. We don’t overschedule, allowing us to include an exhibit that needs to take place because of a current climate or that addresses a social or global issue. But we can also schedule out two years in advance and give curators and artists valuable time to create work, for which they are grateful. In 2017, as we celebrate our 20th anniversary, I see the ICA evolving to have a deeper connection to not only the local community but the global community as well, through digital communication. Powerful and poignant exhibits can be seen years later and through different types of media.
The ICA is always changing and continuously evolving.
How do the exhibits and projects impact MECA’s students and the curriculum?
The ICA has never lost sight of the educational component of this space that ties directly to the curriculum and vice versa, with some exhibitions layered into the curriculum itself. In fact, the ICA is used as a laboratory space for many classrooms, including MECA’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program. Our goal is to have every student come to visit every exhibit, get to know the curators, be immersed in contemporary art, get to know the artists, and participate in conversations. Otherwise we could be like any other place. We are unique. Any student interested in working in a gallery or museum can train in the ICA through internships, employment, and hands-on experiences through curatorial practices, learning how an exhibition is put together from beginning to end, which is vital to them. They get real-world experience and deep dive into the exhibition process. MECA’s visiting artist committee is a link between the curriculum and exhibition roster. We work with faculty to produce curated exhibits, and we work with students and alumni who participate in exhibits. We’ve had interactive projects through MECA’s Public Engagement Program and we occasionally showcase student work in our front gallery through a vetted proposal process. In addition, the ICA manages all the exhibitions on campus.
The recent Painting Symposium in conjunction with the American Genre: Contemporary Painting exhibit curated by Michelle Grabner was a huge success, with over 150 people attending. What was that like?
It was an incredible experience to have artists, critics, writers, and a participatory audience hear from leaders in the field. This event would not have been possible without Gail Spaien, professor in MECA’s Painting and MFA Programs and a contributing artist to the American Genre exhibition. She developed this grand idea and had the energy to see it through. Michelle Grabner shared her vision for the exhibition that surrounded us, and we all got to kind of geek out on painting and be immersed in critical theory and all things painting. Our students were able to engage directly with these leaders and everyone left inspired, feeling like they sat through something really meaningful and powerful. We plan to have more symposia and opportunities for the community to engage in critical conversations.
In what sense is the ICA “a constant critique”?
The students who come in here say, “Ahh—that’s art,” because they see it on the walls. But the purpose of the ICA is to create dialogue—for a student, guest, or visitor to view artwork and have a response. It might be positive, negative, emotional, or blasé, but there’s a response. The exhibitions are meant to provoke students to bring these conversations back to their classrooms and strive to have their work on view in a museum or gallery or in experimental ways. We have pop-up events, visiting artists, a lot of things that percolate beyond the walls of the gallery. The future of the ICA lies in the impacts that go well beyond just the physical space.
Are there any particularly memorable stories you would like to share?
My most memorable story—the reason why I was so drawn to working in the ICA—was my experience as a young student working with David Ireland and being an intern on that exhibition, where I received first- hand experience and made a real personal connection with the artist. I will never forget it. Partnering with Daniel Fuller on the student-immersive events where we collaborated on weeklong student engagement projects was also a rich experience. The projects were fun, wacky, and strange, but mostly they were incredible experiences for our students. I continue to look back on those two important experiences, and they fuel the work that I do now.
YOU NEVER KNOW HOW YOU LOOK THROUGH OTHER PEOPLE’S EYES March 8–April 20, 2018. Selected artists create an antagonistic equilibrium in an experimental framework curated by artist Scott Patrick Wiener.
2018 MFA THESIS EXHIBITION May 11–June 8, 2018
More information on upcoming shows can be found here.
Maine College of Art shares deep roots with the Portland Museum of Art. In 1882, the Portland Society of Art was founded, which encompassed both the art school and the museum. Not until 1982 did the Portland School of Art (as it was named in 1972) separate into an independent organization with a renewed mission to educate professional visual artists. In 1992, the College was once again renamed as MECA to better reflect its status as a degree-granting New England school.
Throughout its transformations, MECA has always retained close ties with the Portland Museum of Art, both as our neighbor in the Arts District and in recognition of the collaborative arts community here. MECA’s first-year student orientation, for example, includes a visit to the PMA, and MECA has offered Drawing at the PMA as a Continuing Studies class. In 2013, the PMA presented Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted, the first major museum exhibition of the work of American-Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani ’05, one of our most successful alumni.
PMA’s 2018 Biennial, a survey of contemporary art “intended to highlight artists with meaningful connections to Maine and enrich the cultural lives of the people of the state,” runs through May 30, 2018, and the 25 selected artists include many from the MECA community: David Driskell, Hon. DFA ’96, Gina Adams ’02, Jenny McGee Dougherty ’05, Anne Buckwalter MFA ’12, Adjunct Instructor of Foundation Stephen Benenson, Assistant Instructor of Illustration Daniel Minter, and Assistant Professor of Sculpture and MFA Joshua Reiman.
The Portland Museum of Art’s 2018 Biennial is made possible by the William E. and Helen E. Thon Endowment Fund, with additional support from the PMA Contemporaries. “Inspired by his own experience and love of biennials, Thon entrusted the PMA with the means to offer a rich contemporary art experience to its audiences.”
Nat May, the former executive director of SPACE Gallery (another vital arts organization and connecting point in downtown Portland, located between MECA and the PMA), was invited to curate the biennial this year. In addition to his work at SPACE for more than 13 years, May has been a strong influencer in the local arts community. To determine the final list, May assembled a team of arts professionals, which included PMA’s Judy and Leonard Lauder Director Mark Bessire, artist and Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance co-founder Theresa Secord, and Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture Co-Director Sarah Workneh. They each visited studios throughout Maine and the nation, meeting with artists who complement each other while reflecting Maine’s increasingly diverse community. In a change from past biennials, many of the artists will be exhibiting not just one singular work but several.
Header Image: The Portland Museum of Art Biennial 2018 opening party. Photo by Brianna Soukup, the Portland Press Herald.
Wheels click in staccato rhythms and rubber stoppers shriek against the slick wooden floor of the track. Strapped head to toe in protective pads and helmets, 10 women on rollerskates jockey for position, huddling in groups, bracing and pushing. Two nimble skaters—jammers—race each other as they try to score points for their teams while avoiding the clusters of the opponent’s blockers.
It’s a Saturday night in September—the opening bout of the 2017 Maine Roller Derby season. The RIP Tides are battling the Calamity Janes at Happy Wheels Skate Center in Portland, Maine. I am trying to be nimble myself as I dart from this corner to that, my camera and tripod in tow. I chose roller derby as the subject for my short documentary film project at Salt because I’ve always loved the pageantry of the sport: the campy derby nicknames like Cabbage Smash Kid and Stella Moves, and the displays of bravado and high drama on the track. But as I circle the players trying to get footage, trying not to get hit, I’m still not sure of the story I want to tell.
Later, at the after-party, under glowing strings of lights on the rooftop ofBayside Bowl, I asked some of the skaters sitting near me, “What should my focus be? What is the real story here?” One of the newer skaters spoke up quickly. She looked younger than most of the other skaters, and her long limbs, speed, and agility made her a natural jammer. During the bout, she looked almost like she was tiptoeing as she fought her way through the opposing team’s blockers—a mix of determination and uncertainty. She shared her own story: like other gay women on the team, she’d found not only a community that is notoriously inclusive, but she’d also met women who’d been out for some time and were living the kinds of lives she hoped for herself. I thought about my own experiences as a gay person, how I sought out places where I could be around other LGBT people, how reassuring it felt to see those older community members and think, “I’m going to be okay.” Her story stuck with me all weekend.
The following week, I asked if she would share her story in my film, and she reluctantly agreed. She was nervous about being on camera, afraid she might say the wrong thing; she didn’t really want the spotlight.That week, she allowed me to film her at practice, gliding around the track, chatting with teammates, but the following evening, when it was time to sit down for the interview, she texted me apologetically. She just wasn’t sure that she wanted to share her story, to open herself up to judgment and scrutiny. I told her I understood, but I was crushed. I wasn’t sure that I could make the film without her story.
Before I came to MECA, I buzzed with anticipation through the spring and summer, knowing that I would soon be leaving a job that had become heavy and stale. I knew I would spend the last four months of the year far from home, learning to make documentaries while surrounded by other students chasing the same dream. But during the second week of classes, when we turned in our first assignments, I realized that I was afraid to share my work with the class. I had studied photojournalism as an undergrad a decade ago, but in the years between had somehow forgotten how terrifying it is to create something so personal and then put it up on a screen for others to judge. I couldn’t fault the young skater for being scared of how I might tell her story or for her fear of what others might think.
I realized that I came to Salt, to MECA, to Maine, chasing a sense of belonging as much as a dream of making documentaries.
In the weeks after our failed interview, I wrestled with my disappointment, but I knew I just wasn’t done with roller derby yet. I thought about the other people I’d met sitting on the rooftop at that after-party. There’d been a young man there who had met a skater at a record store just
days before. After he’d confided in her that he really didn’t have many friends and was lonely, she’d invited him to the bout and he had decided to come. And there’d been all those other skaters: each had their own story of what had brought them to the sport, and each had stayed with it because they’d found a community that welcomed them and accepted them as they were. I decided to continue with the project, to gather as many of their stories as I could and try to capture that sense of community.
I also thought about my own story. I realized that I came to Salt, to MECA, to Maine, chasing a sense of belonging as much as a dream of making documentaries. All my classmates have their own story of what brought them to Salt, but we’ve all been welcomed into a community here, and it makes me think of what I find most wonderful about the documentary: the feeling of connection to someone or something you didn’t know before.
Alix Towler Salt ’17 is a writer, artist, and documentary filmmaker from North Carolina. A former forensic social worker, Alix focuses primarily on issues of social justice but is also drawn to document the quirky, the novel, and the charming. She came to Portland as an inaugural member of the fall class of Salt at MECA.
Images in Header: Photos by Alix Towler Salt ’17, except for upper right photo by Rick Stark Salt ’17
My experience during the 2017 MFA research trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles was a fruitful one. Along with the established itinerary, packed with visits to art institutions and scenic locations relevant to the West Coast, I took the opportunity to conduct some specific research outside of the already packed schedule. Within my practice, my interests are largely influenced by the architecture of my immediate environment. While in Los Angeles, I sought out the opportunity to gain more insight into the matter and visited the A+D Architecture and Design Museum. On display were the exhibitions
While in Los Angeles, I sought out the opportunity to gain more insight into the matter and visited the A+D Architecture and Design Museum. On display were the exhibitions Architectural Imagination and The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin. They contained preliminary work for architectural structures, refined models for the structures, and, in some instances, photo documentation of the completed projects, as demonstrated in the exhibition of Lawrence Halprin’s work. Halprin was a San Francisco Bay Area artist, notorious for his work within San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, an environment I had experienced first- hand just days previously. Speaking at the Architectural Imagination exhibition, I was floored by the combination of model and collage works operating in the context of exhibition as preliminary work for a larger project, but in my view also operating as stand-alone works. As collections of work, the exhibitions demonstrated innovative techniques for developing form within a variety of landscapes, shifting my perspective on how scale operates within a vast space and broadening my perspective on the ways that architecture shifts landscapes, both urban and rural. These exhibitions showed me how comparable these processes are to my own practice while challenging my perspective on how space and aesthetics, in response to an immediate environment, can function within both an exterior context and a gallery context.
As collections of work, the exhibitions demonstrated innovative techniques for developing form within a variety of landscapes, shifting my perspective on how scale operates within a vast space and broadening my perspective on the ways that architecture shifts landscapes, both urban and rural. These exhibitions showed me how comparable these processes are to my own practice while challenging my perspective on how space and aesthetics, in response to an immediate environment, can function within both an exterior context and a gallery context.
Kylie Ford MFA ’18 is a second-year MFA student who has exhibited her work nationally.
Images in Header:
My work is a hybrid of art, craft, and traditional handiwork. I embroider on paper, using stitches for drawing and mark-making. I print letterpress and other relief processes on fabric and paper, using letterforms as image, pattern, or readable text, from which I make sculpture that resembles clothing but isn’t for wearing. I’m inspired by found and collected matter that has been discarded or forgotten, or is somehow obsolete; its history and decay inform how I use it and what it becomes. I love wrangling disparate materials and methods into a cohesive whole, and I enjoy slow processes that require a particular kind of patience, repetition, and commitment. I love a tedious, time-consuming activity that is its own reward.
You start with the possibilities of the material. – Robert Rauschenberg
I make things to explore ideas with materials. This requires my paying attention to not just what I’m thinking about, but what the materials themselves are evoking and how they develop and support my ideas. It also means intuiting whether I’ll be making a print, a sculpture, a fabric piece, or something in between. I’m most at home in the spaces between genres, where thought and matter first collide, and then combine.
Somewhere I read that a learning process includes necessary failures. In my studio, I need to feel that I am learning something as I make, which means I don’t always get a polished ready-to-show thing. The wrestling with the paper, thread, ink, textile, or metal gives me the information I need to continue. One of my studio walls displays these small failures, but I don’t keep them there as admonishments to my ineptitude. They are important reference tools that I look to for guidance, even inspiration.And eventually many will find their way into a finished piece.
When I was new to teaching, I overcame my nervousness by having specific plans for class time and for the object or products students would have completed at the end of the class. This approach was mostly successful for many years, but as my own work began to go in unexpected directions, I became less interested in teaching toward a definable object and more excited by introducing students to processes and possibilities. I encourage students to discover what works for them, to share what they know with each other, and to develop a vocabulary of skills and methods that they can draw on to use in their own studios.
Crystal Cawley makes sculpture, artist’s books, and works on and of paper. She teaches paper and book arts classes such as Sampler: Paper, Fiber, Print and Stitch and Sewing Machine as Drawing Tool in Maine College of Art’s Continuing Studies program. Her work has been widely exhibited and collected, and she is a past recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant.
Tessa Greene O’Brien MFA ’16 and her husband, Will Sears, both painters, had a long-standing dream to fill the city of Portland with colorful, graphic works of art in public spaces. Immersed in the worlds of sign painting, murals, and large-scale festival and installation work, the pair wanted to create opportunities for communities to come together around art that celebrated both the contemporary art world and the vernacular of place. In 2015, with a grant from the Kindling Fund—administered by SPACE Gallery through a regranting program funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts—O’Brien and Sears were able to co-found the Portland Mural Initiative, which now has six murals and architectural interventions under its name, and plans for future works underway.
“We have learned a lot about public art and community engagement since our inception,” says O’Brien. The Portland Mural Initiative has worked with several private businesses along Portland’s Bayside Trail that have offered up walls to emerging and established artists whom O’Brien and Sears have commissioned. They’ve also worked as far away as Kittery, in addition to their signature work in Portland. Understanding that artists are not separate from the communities they live and work in, O’Brien and Sears have diligently attended to fostering dialogue among artists, organizations, and community stakeholders. The Portland Mural Initiative has hosted free public meals at openings for murals and a series of artist talks designed to connect the public to the work.
This kind of connection is important, especially for artists like Jenny McGee Dougherty ’05, who was commissioned for one of the Bayside Trail murals in the summer of 2015. “There are elements of the composition that were directly drawn from the surrounding landscape,” she says, pointing to various architectural details and color palettes—like swaths of paint meant to cover up graffi ti—that inform her abstract, collage-like work. Dougherty, whose mural work will be included in the Portland Museum of Art 2018 Biennial, was able to translate the imagery of her smaller works on paper into something larger and much more public through her work with the Portland Mural Initiative: “Working large and having my process viewable to the public was exciting—it allowed me to come full circle with this work.”
For O’Brien and Sears, working with artists who have a connection to the area creates a space for the community to engage in deeper understandings of both art and artists in Portland, and work such as Dougherty’s can highlight hidden moments of beauty in the neighborhood in new, thoughtful ways. “Artists are integral members of the community,” says O’Brien. “We seek opportunities that allow the artists creative license while still aligning with the reality and vibe of the neighborhood.”
As the Portland Mural Initiative moves into its fourth year, O’Brien notes that they have dialed back the scale of the project in order to pursue projects that they’re passionate about, even if that means taking on fewer projects per year. “Our hope is that the artist’s creative vision is not dulled down through extensive design by committee,” O’Brien reflects. As the Portland Mural Initiative gains recognition and momentum, she and Sears are being careful to honor both the artists they work with and their own creative practices. In addition to working on several of her own commissions, O’Brien also has an active studio practice and recently attended painting residencies at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, and at Hewnoaks Artist Colony in Lovell, Maine.
While new projects are underway, viewers can currently take a stroll or cycle along the Bayside Trail to see murals by O’Brien, Sears, and Dougherty, as well as by Andrea Sulzer and Greta van Campen, and can get updates from portlandmuralinitiative.org.
Jenna Crowder ’09 is an artist who works in installation, curating, and writing. She earned her BFA in Sculpture at MECA and has worked internationally on public and collaborative art projects. Jenna is currently a member of the Portland Public Art Committee and is a member artist at Pickwick Independent Press. She is the co-founding editor of the online arts journal The Chart.
..a bunch of kids from around this planet taught me that a book’s job is to connect. And if it does, that’s enough.
Maine College of Art’s ten-month Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program prepares artists to become effective art educators who learn to translate their unique qualities into creative teaching practices. Fieldwork and community engagement are essential components of the program. Like most students at MECA, the MAT candidates can be seen working in a variety of settings across the greater Portland area, including schools, museums, and community-based learning centers.
Through MECA’s MAT 809 Alternative Settings for Art Education class, community placements serve as a resource for informing classroom practice while MAT artist/teacher candidates explore, develop, and participate in engaging with intergenerational and multicultural community sites in various venues in the Portland area. MAT candidates collaborate with local schools and teachers to conduct classroom visits, develop and lead gallery tours, and teach workshops, engaging elementary and middle school children by extending and integrating their academic knowledge through interdisciplinary and integrated lesson plans. Through this process, MAT candidates learn how to work collaboratively within their communities to create and document artwork that has a social impact.
The Westbrook school system’s student body has changed rapidly over the last decade to include students from over 25 countries who now call Westbrook, Maine, home. The art and life of Nek Chand, the true story told in the children’s book The Secret Kingdom, served as a jumping off point for lesson plans developed for elementary and middle school students in Westbrook by MECA MAT candidates in collaboration with the school teachers. Each teaching team returned to the partner school to hang displays and make the learning visible.
A Book’s Job by Barb Rosenstock
“Your job is a teacher, mine is a writer. Or you’re a librarian and someone else is an illustrator. But what is a book’s job?
When you’ve been working with children’s books for a while you can lose track. You start to believe that a book’s job is to sell a lot of copies or get made into a movie or always be missing from the shelves or have its title tweeted every ten minutes.
After more than ten years of writing for kids, I’ve just learned a lesson about a book’s job that I’ll never forget…
A group of master’s level student teachers from the Maine College of Art in Portland asked to use my upcoming picture book, The Secret Kingdom, for a series of lessons. The Secret Kingdom (illustrated by Claire Nivola) is the story of Nek Chand, a refugee, forced to leave his home village during the partition of India in 1947. As an adult, Nek secretly rebuilt his home village using recycled materials. His creation is now known as “The Rock Garden of Chandigarh,” and is one of the largest folk or “outsider” art installations in the world.
Portland is an official federal refugee resettlement city. These graduate in-service teachers, supervised by Kelly McConnell, worked in teams to create lessons for a suburban school system that has grown more diverse in a short time because of its proximity to Portland. The district currently serves students who speak over 25 languages and have come from 66 countries to the United States.
These student teachers hoped The Secret Kingdom, and Nek Chand’s art, might be a good fit to address these varied student’s learning goals. We met in one Skype session, I answered some background questions, the book’s publisher sent materials, and these future teachers went to work. They created experiential lessons that showed great understanding of their student’s needs. Here’s four examples of their amazing work:
So, they defined home as a “safe space” and focused on school as a safe space they all have in common.
Future teachers Samara Yandell and Hannah Bevens wanted to “translate a deeper and personal understanding of home to our students.” But they didn’t have much background on their 5th grade students, and worried about what the idea of “home” could trigger emotionally, especially for more recent arrivals. So, they defined home as a “safe space” and focused on school as a safe space they all have in common. They called their project Safe Spaces/Safe Sounds. After reading the book (and shocking the students that Nek’s kingdom is a real place!) they set out to share “belonging sounds” across cultures: a French cathedral, Japanese temples, and aboriginal wind chimes. Their students drew and created their own chimes using recycled plastics and paint. The chimes were hung in a school entryway (with a QR code so the process can be accessed!) giving students an auditory connection to this safe space. Making school a home.
Coreysha Stone and Laura Berg’s essential question for their multi-day lesson was “Where do I belong?” In Story Bowl of Belonging, they shared an art/language activity that introduced artists as storytellers, pronoun usage, and what it means to belong in a classroom. Each first-grade student chose one object to put in a shared bowl. The bowl was ‘us,’ the objects “me” and “you.” They read Nek’s story aloud, discussed his community, used ELA standard pronouns, and shared artistic examples of bowls from Iraq and other countries. The lesson culminated in each student creating a paper mache bowl decorated with tissue paper, paint and images from The Secret Kingdom. The finished projects express unique ideas of self and community.
Amanda Albanese and Raven Zeh focused on “What colors/textures, sounds/words make you think of home?” in their Haikus for Home lesson. Their 5th grade class discussed sensory triggers: tastes, smells, sounds, memories, and how we can bring home with us using art (brilliant! seriously.) Students interpreted the theme of home in Haiku form, combining original words with sensory language from the book. They used sound clips, world maps, plants, fabrics, ceramics, mirrors, musical instruments, and Nek Chand’s art as inspiration. Amanda and Raven took into account students with textural or sound aversions. The final project was a video in which each student read their watercolor haiku while their sound clip played.
They showed their 6th graders samples of trees created by artists around the world. Students read and decided on The Secret Kingdom’s central themes.
Nek Chand worked hard to plant gardens in his art kingdom, so Greta Grant and Tori Parsloe’s lesson, Tree of Life was intriguing. They showed their 6th graders samples of trees created by artists around the world. Students read and decided on The Secret Kingdom’s central themes. The 6th graders each constructed a plaster gauze branch and copper foil leaf sculpture (much like the wire frameworks Nek Chand used) to reflect their unique qualities. The leaves were embossed using a variety of tools. Some leaves contained symbols, or quotes, “Live life how YOU want” or “Just because my path is different, doesn’t mean I’m lost.” The individual branches were wired to a larger classroom tree to show how students’ personal traits contribute to the entire school community.
While watching videos of these young students analyzing Claire’s illustrations, and working with Nek’s true story, I experienced their surprise, delight, and sometimes, their frustration. I noticed the patterns on their t-shirts and the embroidery on their headscarves, the shades of their skin and the colors of their artwork. I watched kids in one suburban school, from all over the world, engage with my words in a deep way. Most importantly, I watched them relate to a boy from India born over 100 years ago—a boy who was forced to go, but who found home again through his art.
My job is to write children’s books. As part of that, I think about sales figures, social media mentions, book lists and upcoming reviews for The Secret Kingdom. But those factors will never matter in quite the same way again. Because a bunch of kids from around this planet taught me that a book’s job is to connect. And if it does, that’s enough. That’s what I’m working for. That’s home.”
See more photos and videos of the projects at http://www.curiouscitydpw.com/2018/01/21/secret-kingdom-art-lessons/
Detailed lesson plan .pdf files can be viewed at: http://barbrosenstock.com/read/SecretKindomguides.pdf