Visitors to the Levine Museum of the New South might be surprised to find work from local high-schoolers hanging along a hall, along with personal statements.
The artwork in the form of self-portrait photography coincides with the museums exhibit Fighting for Democracy: Who is the We in We, the People?
Twenty-two high-school artists from Studio 345 answer that question. Their personal statements, paired with self-portraits, are titled I am the We in We the People, and will be up in the Levine through July 7.
An example from West Mecklenburg Highs Justin Nichols:
The student who strives for excellence
In what would have been a whites-only school
A kid whose native roots run deep into the beginning of time
Who would have counted as only three-fifths of a person in a time not so long ago.
Who today can aspire to be anything he wants to be.
I am the We in We the People.
Shania Wilson, a freshman at East Mecklenburg High, said no one in the photography class quite knew what to do when their Studio 345 teachers gave them the We the People assignment.
At first, everybody was a bit stuck, she said.
But teaching artist Kristin St. Martin said she loved the result.
They shared very deeply, she said. I was shocked how open and honest they were.
Jennifer Villafranco, a senior at Cato Middle College High, was so excited when she learned she was admitted to the photography class that she immediately checked out books from the library about photography and how to use cameras.
For the We the People project, she wanted to talk about how divisive politics have become for Americans, ultimately losing some peoples voices in the din.
She photographed the back of herself holding an umbrella. She replicated three of those images, but blurred the second and almost faded out the third.
Jennifer said she has loved learning about photography.
Ive been able to tell my friends my work is in a museum, and thats been really cool, she said. Its such an honor.
Learning photography has directly impacted Jasmine Santos life.
Jasmine, a senior at West Mecklenburg, has been suffering from hemiplegic migraines, which caused her temporary paralysis.
Jasmine said Studio 345s photography classes have been therapeutic and lifted her spirits and credits both the classes and a new prescription with significantly lessening those migraines.
I walk a lot more, she said, smiling.
Shania Wilson said the program, designed to give students a creative outlet and zest for learning, has changed her life.
She started at West Mecklenburg High and kept getting in trouble for breaking rules and getting in arguments with classmates. She was sitting in a social workers office when she saw a flier for Studio 345. The program was attractive to her: You get freedoms ... and they trust you.
She said she didnt think she would get in, but was thrilled when she did. This was motivation to keep me in school and not get suspended, she said, noting that Studio 345 doesnt allow students to participate if theyre suspended.
Shania has since moved and now attends East Mecklenburg, and she said she likes going there. Im still out of trouble. It helped me a lot.
A major turning point for Shania was when she went with Studio 345 kids to a nursing home to spend time with the elderly and take photos. After that experience, she decided she wants to go into nursing and someday start her own cheery nursing home.
It motivated me to stay in school, she said, and do something useful and positive, to contribute to the world.