This Is Our War Exhibit at The Red Arrow Gallery

Words by Rebecca Pierce

Photography by Tiffani Bing

If you don’t like the conversation, change it, and if you don’t like what people think of you, change their perceptions.

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That is exactly what Art Teacher Mike Mitchell and Dr. Ryan Jackson, Principal of the Academy of Energy and Power, at Maplewood High School are showing their students how to do through art.

“Maplewood High School is in East Nashville, in an intense area of poverty, so there are mediocre to low expectations of our students, and we don’t buy into that,” explained Jackson. Last year, Jackson, Mitchell and their students worked on a project-based learning exercise to investigate what it would take to colonize Mars. Nashville designer Amanda Valentine joined in on the collaboration. “We had such success and realized increased innovation across curriculum. We created a whole-brain approach, and that motivated us to ask what’s next.”

The two dynamic educators decided to do something with drones. According to Mitchell, the question that has driven their project has been: “In a world where perception can very well be reality, how can using a drone as an artistic tool help initiate a paradigm shift about the negative perceptions of not only drones but also the eclectic students who use them to create not destroy?”

Two hundred students bought into the concept and the project. They made drawings about how they would modify a drone to make art and wrote about why using a drone to paint was different than painting by hand. A Donor’s Choose grant funded a brand new Parrot Bebop drone, and as soon as it arrived they started implementing their schematics. To achieve optimum results, they revised their techniques a number of times with input from each other and from New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz.

During his research Mitchell discovered Mahwish Chishty, an adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, who was initially trained as a miniature painter from the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. She has been using drones as her subject matter for some time and has aggressively combined new media and conceptual work with her traditional practice. Her work with the students was done via Skype, but she was able to attend the opening of the exhibit when she came to Nashville as a Visiting Artist for the Vanderbilt Artist Lecture Series.

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Art teacher Mike Mitchell, visiting artist Mahwish Chishty, and student artist Ivory Shutes, III

The Red Arrow Gallery Director and Curator Katie Shaw and Communications Director Sara Paul serve on the advisory board for Maplewood’s Academy of Energy and Power. They worked with the entire team throughout the project and helped them create an exhibit, which opened February 13. The exhibition, This Is Our War, fills the entire gallery. Numerous paintings on paper and canvas ranging in size from six by six inches to six by six feet and larger line every wall of the gallery. Mahwish Chishty’s video installation Reaper is projected on an upper wall.

On the floor is a very large tile installation in the shape of an RQ-170 drone, which is the one Chishty most often uses as reference for imagery. The two- to four-inch tiles were donated by Turnip Green Creative Reuse and designed by the students.

“I figured out that we could have the students do these individual pieces, and then we could put them together in community. I work with symbols so I wanted them to do something with iconography, something that spoke uniquely to them,” Chishty explained.

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Detail of the drone-shaped tile installation

According to Mitchell, this project gave students “a voice and a choice. It helped me to get across to the students that they can change the community’s perception of them, and thus Maplewood, through their actions. Every time they make a positive choice for themselves, it affects the whole school and what the community sees.”

This Is Our War remains on view at The Red Arrow Gallery, 919 Gallatin Avenue #4, through March 6. Nashville Arts Magazine will host a conversation with Mahwish Chishty on Saturday, March 5. For more information, visit




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