Art Smart: A monthly guide to art education

July 2016

by Dr. Ryan B. Jackson/ Assistant Principal Maplewood High School

Senior Chavis Vaughn showcases his 21st-century paintbrush Photograph by Ryan B. Jackson

Senior Chavis Vaughn showcases his 21st-century paintbrush. Photograph by Ryan B. Jackson

When I originally thought about art through a school lens, I never imagined handcrafted spacesuits or Pollock-inspired drone paintings, but then again that’s what makes art so incredible: it’s boundless—limitless. It can manifest into anything you want it to be. That’s what we found out over the past two years at Maplewood High School.

“Let’s be clear: Art isn’t a fringe subject. It’s not something we ‘make time for.'”

Unfortunately, Art’s current status as a second-fiddle curriculum in education’s standardization era has played a significant role in the loss of student expression and perceived sense of belonging. I knew all of this heading into the 2014–2015 school year, and as a forward-thinking high school assistant principal, I decided to do something about it.

Growing up the son of a starving artist, I witnessed firsthand the impact of a dedicated theatre group on a working-class city like Evansville, Indiana. The cultural currency art provides invigorated not only the playhouse and its players but the city at large, providing an imperative contrast to the mundane and monotonous. Thus, my ambitious goal as an inner-city Nashville educator was to inject as much Art into as many curriculums as academically possible, fusing science with set design, engineering with painting, and physical education with creative writing.

So, what began as a gamble turned into a full-on, Jerry Saltz-approved Arts integration powerhouse, culminating in two award-winning projects that took both the city and the state by storm. I’ll reference these projects as #MaplewoodMartians and #CreateNotDestroy since their origins and chronological progress can be tracked using both Twitter and Instagram.

Junior Jesse Byrd modifies a Parrot drone, prepping it for artistic flight. Photograph by Ryan B. Jackson

Junior Jesse Byrd modifies a Parrot drone, prepping it for artistic flight. Photograph by Ryan B. Jackson

When we asked our students how to colonize Mars, their interest was piqued. When Project Runway runner-up and East Nashvillian Amanda Valentine came aboard to help students design and construct the spacesuits our Mars engineers would wear, their minds were blown. When we introduced students to drone technology, they leaped at the opportunity to get their hands on the latest controversial gadget. When we empowered them to create unique pieces of art, modifying drones into 21st-century paintbrushes (showcased beautifully as modern-day Basquiats thanks to Red Arrow Gallery) it felt as if we were a catalyst of education’s evolution.

Project Runway alum Amanda Valentine lends her design talents inside the classroom. Photograph by Mike Mitchell

Project Runway alum Amanda Valentine lends her design talents inside the classroom. Photograph by Mike Mitchell

Two forward-thinking, cross-curricular projects that involved nearly 300 students—and amassed local and statewide recognition and awards—not only helped shine a much needed light on the inspiring work happening at Maplewood but also sent cultural shockwaves throughout the school. Students stayed after school, showed up during Christmas and spring breaks, and flooded an increasingly crowded Art classroom during the school’s advisory time.

My sincere hope now is that our school’s story serves as a testament that Art is education’s lynchpin, the proverbial lever of change capable of redefining school as we know it.

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