An eclectic parade of tinfoil figures line a counter in Building J at West Charlotte High School. One holds a ballerina’s position. Another seems ready to hurl a discus. They were produced in the style of Alberto Giacometti by 23 students partaking in an intensive art studio experience. The program is a collaboration between the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and Communities in Schools that runs from July 9-27.
“This is not a camp,” explains Christopher Lawing, vice president for programming and research at the Bechtler. The three-week, six-hour-a-day program is modeled on the studio-based art lab more commonly found in college curricula than a high school summer camp. The workshop includes training in multiple media, instruction by working artists, and an opportunity to create work in the style of the artists represented in the Bechtler collection.
The workshop came about during a conversation between Lawing and CIS Executive Director Molly Shaw about what the Bechtler could do for CIS high school students. The mission of CIS is to empower students to stay in school and to achieve in life. “This project is about bringing to life what happens in the classroom,” Shaw said. “It is about connecting the students to the community. It is about inspiring them to think about their own art and their own future.”
West Charlotte High School is one of nine high schools included in the Project L.I.F.T. initiative, which works to improve academic outcomes for students in the west corridor of Mecklenburg County. This summer Project L.I.F.T. is providing programming at West Charlotte High; the CIS and Bechtler art workshop fit perfectly. The workshop is funded through CIS and is free to students.
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“Some of these kids had never been downtown before, and some had never been in a museum before,” said Erica Somerwitz, school and community programs manager at the Bechtler. “My overarching goal is to make them feel comfortable in the museum. I think museums can be off-putting or intimidating. I want them to feel like the Bechtler is a place for them.”
Lessons in art
The workshop is both instructional and experimental. “The end goal wasn’t that the students were going to walk out of there with a set number of pieces,” Lawing said. “If a student wants to spend three weeks working on one project like a huge canvas they could do that. Or a student could walk out with a portfolio of imagery made through different types of printmaking.”
The workshop is led by Ginny Boyd and Amy St. Aubin, teaching artists for the Bechtler. First the students learned about artists in the Bechtler collection, including Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Giacometti. Guest speakers in the classroom ranged from Shaw Smith, professor of art history and humanities at Davidson College, to Catherine McElvane, the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Each Friday, the class took a field trip to the Bechtler Museum.
During the first two weeks, the students were assigned projects that explored modern art styles. “It was the idea of giving them a process and an option of how to make images,” St. Aubin said.
They used an everyday object to make a watercolor silkscreen. They used a hanging object to create kinetic sculptures with found objects. They did contour drawing and studied Alexander Calder wire faces. They created optical art, which are geometric patterns that appear to be moving, though the picture is two dimensional.
In the classroom
On Monday of the program’s second week, two students wind wire around model heads made of masking tape covered in foil. “We are making faces,” explains Trinisha Phillips, 15. They are creating advanced versions of their original tinfoil sculptures. “If they don’t have faces, they don’t have any feelings, but the bodies show you whether they are rejoicing,” said Lynndeja Holloway, 15.
Other students draw thumbnail sketches of their final projects. “The main thing I like is cartoon characters and anime characters and landscaping paintings, so that’s what I’m trying to combine in this project,” says Elisha Connor, 18. “The Marilyn Monroe painting is an inspiration for me,” she says of Warhol’s serigraph print.
“I am outlining it, and going over it, and then painting it acrylic,” says Taylor Campbell, 17, of her final project, a painting she plans to infuse with surrealism. Campbell also likes Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. “I like how the different colors in her face pop out even though they are shadowed.”
Salyric Fletcher, 17, is sketching a landscape with a figure planking in the foreground. “I think I am going to use the oil pastels to go over it and then go over with a water paintbrush to blend the colors,” she says. “They add a lot of texture.”
Z’Kirriah Kelly, 15, is working on a black and white drawing of a woman’s face that looks like it’s covered with a jigsaw puzzle. “She’s been hurt a lot,” Kelly says about the drawing. “She’s always angry. And she stays in trouble because of what she’s been through. She thinks everyone is out to hurt her. The scars are on the inside.” A small heart drawn next to the woman’s eye shows, “she’s hiding her love,” Kelly says.
The only middle-schooler in the program, Emonie McAdams, 13, is drawing an anime comic book with a deep story line. “She has a boyfriend and she’s been cheated on and she doesn’t know what to turn to, and she is trying to figure out whether to turn to her best friends or her mom,” she explains. “The name of it is ‘Truth Be Told,’ and it’s a two-part series, and this is part one.”
Shantiqua Neely is the Project L.I.F.T. program director for CIS. “My hope is that the student participants will conclude this program with an individual challenge to continue to hone their craft and produce their absolute best work,” she said in an email.
At the end of three weeks, the students will have experienced printmaking, painting, sculpture, digital photography and drawing. They will be exposed to art history and to some career opportunities available in the field.
The program culminates with a private exhibition of student art work at the Bechtler on July 27, and with a collaborative piece by the students that will hang at Wells Fargo. Somerwitz looks forward to the students returning to the museum. “That’s my hope,” she says. “That they will bring back their families and friends.”