by DeeGee Lester | Photography by Jeorgi Smith
We’ve all grown up thinking that art is supposed to say something to the viewer. We visit museums and stand before some work of art and ask, what is the artist trying to say? Sometimes, the story behind the art is so powerful that even simple lines can impact a life.
Children in several Metro schools discovered the impact of story and art this year through a special PENCIL Foundation program. Nossi College of Art students Ash-Shahid Muhammad and Kelly Walker, mentors for PENCIL Foundation through N.A.Z.A (Nashville After Zone Alliance), combined story and art in a unique program that steers kids toward self-worth and making right choices. Their visit to Oliver Middle School, accompanied by photographer Jeorgi Smith, is an example of the impact of art and story on children.
“When Nossi asked for volunteers to go to the schools, I thought, man, this is my chance to impact people with what I’m doing,” recalls Shahid. “I thought about how I could tie my artwork with my experience.”
With a passion for teaching kids and armed with a personal story that included past drug use and gang activity that resulted in a tragic shooting and homelessness, Shahid can bring a room of noisy children to what Kelly describes as “a quietness . . . like a child tiptoeing softly.”
They begin with one name, Robert McCraney, written on the board, and Shahid tells the story of how he and his talented friend who had a bright future including a basketball scholarship to college, allowed curiosity and poor choices to lead their lives into a hail of bullets, resulting in Shahid’s loss of an eye and Robert’s future destroyed by paralysis. The consequences of choices are then used as a link to the art portion of the program. Working in tandem with Kelly, Shahid invites the children to draw a square with a circle inside. That circle becomes the basis for a self-portrait—how kids see themselves when they look at their own image in the mirror.
“Do you know who YOU are?” Shahid asks the students. “Find yourself first. That person in the mirror is the most important person.” As students work on their mirror image drawings of themselves, the teaching team reminds them that their choices reflect the way they see themselves. The inspiring words and activities impact everyone present.
“It’s humbling to realize that I have a voice to speak before kids,” Kelly says. “And listening to Shahid, I think to myself, this is exactly what Shahid was meant to do—to change the lives of school children.”
At the conclusion of the afternoon’s activities, children line the hallway, holding the letters of Robert McCraney’s name, and Jeorgi’s photograph is snapped to share with Robert in Memphis as encouragement to him and as evidence of the impact his life still has upon theirs.