The third and fifth grade students from Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School were excited for their field trip on the calm October morning, buzzing amongst themselves in line about what they predicted the art might be like. “I just hope there are lots and lots of colors,” one student told me. “Do you think we’ll be able to touch it?” asked another.
A common theme throughout the tour was the concept of cultural identity and how the art we saw was a response to the environments and spaces in which it was created. Our first stop was 912 Grandville where Steffanie Rosalez, the curator of the installation who is the Cook Arts Center’s program director, facilitated a discussion with the students about artistic meaning.
“What do you see in this mural?” Steffanie questioned. The students’ answers resonated throughout the garage: “a skeleton,” “a rat,” “the desert.” Steffanie went on to explain the artist’s process of dreaming, planning, and creating the art. The kids were floored that the piece was entirely spray-painted. It was thought-provoking to hear how the students processed what they saw as Steffanie walked them through the piece’s meaning—a comment on time passing as social assumptions, stereotypes, and fear remain constant.
After touring the rest of “This Space Is Not Abandoned,” we examined the mural outside of the building that was created youth from GAAH and the Hispanic Center. Unprompted, the students were able to point out the themes of the mural: the various flags representing cultural identity and diversity, the sun symbolizing hope, the kids absorbed in books showing their desire to learn, and the hands in fists and peace signs indicating power and harmony.
At SiTE:LAB, instructor Eliza Fernand guided the students through several exhibits, from “The Well: Rusty Sputnik II” to “Excavations.” The kids seemed to respond most to an entry titled “TransMigration,”a house-turned-art piece. They were peeking in the windows and squinting up at the elevated structure. The students circled the house, curiously examining and evaluating the structure like they were ArtPrize jurors themselves.
“I like the colors, and how it’s kind of high up and we can’t reach it, like we aren’t supposed to touch it,” a student observed. Eliza explained that instead of looking like a normal house, the artist’s intention was for it to be transformed into a sculpture—a work of art.
The students were asked to paint a symbol of their own cultural identity on a wooden block—the goal being to combine the Cultura Collective theme with a material used through the SiTE:LAB exhibit. Many students painted a flag, music notes, or their family. I was stunned at their understanding of identity at a young age, a notion that even adults sometimes struggle with.
One student caught my eye, as he looked discouraged and uninspired. “What are you thinking about painting?” I asked. “Well, I ruined mine,” he groaned, pointing at a smudge of paint on the otherwise bare block. “I messed up and now it’s going to look wrong.”
His friend next to him, who had completed a beautiful design, offered him some profound artistic advice: “remember what we learned about art? There’s never something wrong, there’s always something right.” The boy’s dismay turned into a smile, he picked up the paintbrush, and turned that smudge into art.
It was then that I realized I was in a classroom full of artists, and perhaps a few future ArtPrize winners.