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Discovering the ‘We’ in ‘We the People’

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  • What’s Studio 345?

    Studio 345 is a free program the Arts & Science Council launched last September to educate and inspire students to stay in school, graduate and pursue their dreams. After-school classes, taught by professional artists, target students at risk of not graduating high school.

    The program, three 10-week trimesters, was funded by public and private donations. Mecklenburg County gave $350,000 through its Community Service Grant. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Foundation, an affiliate of Foundation for the Carolinas, gave $20,000.

    Studio 345 focused on digital photography and digital media arts with its 133 students this past school year. The Arts & Science Council reserved some spots for students in the juvenile court system and for students from Project L.I.F.T. schools in west Charlotte.


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 museum’s 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 High’s 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 people’s 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.

“I’ve been able to tell my friends my work is in a museum, and that’s been really cool,” she said. “It’s 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 345’s 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 worker’s 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t allow students to participate if they’re suspended.

Shania has since moved and now attends East Mecklenburg, and she said she likes going there. “I’m 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.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; on Twitter: @YoungAchCLT
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