Accessing an Arts-Rich Community

SFPS Fine Arts Department builds partnerships to engage students in art

“The shadow!” one student calls out. “It turns from a light sensation to very dark.”

“This reminds me of moons,” another offers.

“All of them are connected like puzzle pieces,” says a third.

Gonzales Community School’s seventh-graders are gathered in front of artist Nancy Holt’s Light and Shadow Photo Drawings at the Vladem Contemporary Museum of Art, describing what about the photo series stands out to them.

Holt created this series by shining a light through various curbed cutouts, and took images of the shapes when projected on an opposing wall. The art series’ inscription says the images “invite the viewer to observe the interplay of light and shadow, and grapple with the process of their own perception.”

Now, the students are doing just that, aided by their teachers and field trip supervisors. When the students first arrived at the museum, New Mexico Museum of Art Deputy Director Shannon Bay asked students who have already visited Vladem to raise their hand. Not one student did.

Even though the museum just opened in September, Cristina González, Santa Fe Public Schools’ fine arts coordinator, tells SFR that her goal is to change the pattern. As an example, she notes the district currently has a robust program (Performing Arts for Student Success) that introduces elementary schoolers to theater through visits to the Lensic Performing Arts Center.

“We’ve never had anything comparable for visual or media arts, so that’s one of our goals—to build that for our middle school students,”  González says.

González says the biggest gaps in art education tend to occur in older students in middle and high school. For example, her daughter is a senior at Santa Fe High School. Throughout her entire high school career, she’s been on one field trip to Albuquerque and none in downtown Santa Fe.

“How can you not take students out into this community? It’s so arts-rich. We have so many partners who want to contribute,” González says.

González says since she began overseeing fine arts and music in SFPS, she has been trying to work with cultural institutions to increase student access.

For this reason, SFPS has collaborated with the Community Educators Network, SITE Santa Fe, the Thoma Foundation’s Art Vault and the Vladem Contemporary Museum to create COMPASS (COMPrehensive Arts for Student Success) this year. The Nov. 14 field trip to the Railyard area was a first for seventh and eighth-grade students under the new program.Matthew Contos, SITE Santa Fe’s director of creativity and learning, says funding for arts education tends to focus on younger students, so the program’s focus on middle and high schoolers will make a difference.

“It’s hard to find support for high school students,” Contos says. “It’s chalked up to, ‘Oh, they’re teens. It’s too late.’”

Interactions with arts institutions are also influencing student art projects in the classroom. Students from El Camino Real Academy visited SITE Santa Fe, Form & Concept and the Art Vault this semester and on Nov. 13 displayed art inspired by the trips at Santa Fe’s new Teen Center (on display through Nov. 27).

Carol Schrader, an art teacher at El Camino Real, said the effort took place over a months-long period.

“Students worked in response to those three experiences, and we were very fortunate to have SITE Santa Fe staff to also help us with the experience of writing artist statements and laying out the show,” Schrader said at the showcase. “We were so happy for this collaboration.”

At SITE Santa Fe, students studied portrait collages by Deborah Roberts, and then made self-portrait collages and wrote artist statements explaining the work.

Middle schooler Allison Trevizo, for example, made a collage of herself represented as a “human-bird” hiding in a nest, and wrote, “As a creative person, there is a part of me that I hide from the world, and that is what I represent here.”

And at Form & Concept, students learned about Myanmar artist Chaw Ei Thein and how the civil war in her country influences her art. Her work includes a camouflage-shrouded series of Buddhas, referencing the destruction of Buddhist monasteries by Myanmar’s military junta. Students created art pieces using camouflage patterns similar to Thein’s work.

Thein visited the art showcase, and said she was proud to see the students’ work.

“They did a really great job,” Thein says. “It’s the same material, but different ideas and messages come out.”

Two students from El Camino Real, Mellanie Palomino and Andrea Pereira, created a flower in a vase with petals made from a pink camouflage pattern, and planted a flower in a bullet casing they said represents a message for peace. An inscription next to the bouquet reads, “Flowers inspire a calming peace that could stop war.”

“I really love flowers, and wanted to find a way to use pink in this [project],” Palomino tells SFR.

Coordinators from SITE Santa Fe and the Thoma Foundation’s Art Vault also celebrated the students’ art at the showcase, and promoted increased visits to their institutions. This fall, Gonzales and Aspen community schools are piloting the COMPASS project, and COMPASS will reconvene to discuss future steps after Aspen students visit the Railyard Nov. 16.

The ambition, González says, is to eventually include all middle school students in the district and add more museums by the Plaza and Museum Hill to their roster, to “provide access to students who otherwise might not visit these spaces.”

González says organizing the field trips for students with a shortage of teachers, substitutes and bus drivers remains one of the biggest problems for her department to overcome to give students more access to the arts.

“There are a lot of systemic challenges, and we’re going to have to put our heads together to solve this,” González.

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