Art projects that center on building community pride have helped reduce tension among elementary and middle school students, and now their works are on display at Jackson State University through June 30 thanks to a partnership between JSU and Jackson Public Schools.
The students’ artwork inside JSU’s Johnson Hall art gallery is also a collaborative effort between Parents for Public Schools and “Ask For More Arts” (AFMA), which is a grant-funded program by the Ford Foundation to help facilitate learning.
JSU has been involved with integrating art into JPS classrooms before, but in past years Parents for Public Schools and AFMA relied on local artists from the community to manage the project with elementary and middle school students.
Jimmy Mumford, interim chair of the Department of Arts in the College of Liberal Arts, said this year the groups decided to work exclusively with individuals studying art at JSU.
Mumford said the projects and relationships with the partnering groups are extremely important to preserving art because “most times when budgets are cut art programs are generally one of the first to be eliminated. Decision-makers must be aware that sometimes students may be unable to express themselves in written form and may need to rely on artistic communication.”
In addition, Mumford said, “As an artist you have to learn how to think critically. The biggest gain to having art is that it distinguishes between those who look and those who see. In other words, when many individuals look at something they often gaze at it. But when they see it they develop comprehension. Now, these students understand what they’re doing and can interpret life better.”
JSU gallery director LaNeysa Harris said many JPS schools don’t have an art program, but “this initiative allows JSU to help make students aware of what art is and how it can be used to communicate ideas.” With a focus on communities, she said art allows students to show more pride in themselves, schools and neighborhoods because “it establishes a real sense of place.”
Jamecia McLaurin, 14, of Brinkley Middle School, said her team’s display took a lot of research, focus and time.
“The beauty is that we all worked together and cooperated,” said Jamecia, whose group project spotlights the life and legacy of martyred civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The artwork captures Evers’ work with the NAACP, his death and his convicted assassin, Byron De La Beckwith. Evers’ home, which is less than a mile from Brinkley, will earn a national marker this summer as a landmark and coincides with the title of the gallery display, ”Meet Me At Marker 49.”
Jamecia and her peers have used art as an opportunity to brush up on Mississippi history and discover their own creative talent.
“I had not done art before, but now I would like to focus on more facial art,” she said.
Mumford hails the community aspect of the exhibition. “Usually people from outside Mississippi are the ones who most often visit Evers’ home, but for the first time in a long while people from the community are actually viewing it. This project allows students to research their own community and discover how it ties in to civil rights and other worldwide events.”
Willie Jones is the art coordinator at Brinkley – one of only a few JPS schools with an art club or class. He said a lot of his students didn’t even know much about Evers before the project began.
He said the greatest benefit of having art at Brinkley is that students can integrate their skills into other classes, such as developing diagrams in math and producing art pieces to accompany stories in English classes. “With art, we allow students to use their phones and laptops to create digital designs. Art is fun, but it’s a lot of work. … We learned much about kids and their abilities. Art really has smoothed out their attitudes when before many students were either hyperactive or jittery.”
Aron Smith, a senior graphics design major at JSU, assisted students at Brown Elementary, which does not have an art program. Their project consists of a 3D model of the school, located in an area known as Midtown. The visual map, which is called “One Community,” is designed to enhance students’ understanding of their surroundings. Students used cardboard, pipe cleaners, modeling clay and paint to design and build structures.
“Our biggest objective was teamwork. Students gathered inspiration for the project from what they observed and valued in their community to expand their awareness: the playground, the garden, etc. They transferred those images to produce pieces for the art exhibit, which includes churches, cars and buildings.”
Of the students, Smith said, “I learned more about their curiosity to art. They were really engaged. They were so passionate that they barely put down their pens. … I hope this experience will allow Brown to have a future art program so everyone can see the potential of what art can do for the school and the community.”
And, students weren’t the only ones benefiting. Smith said the project helped him to improve his communication skills with them as he watched how well and fast pupils worked.
Others were equally enthralled by their experiences:
- Jadah Nichols, a student at Brown, embraces the joy of creating art. “We were able to visually show what our community is like. If you can’t explain something to people, you can always show them – sort of like using tools such as Braille to communicate with the blind. … I hope my next school will include an art program to allow us to do another big project that will include developing another replica of a neighborhood. Art has helped me to open up to new things.”
- Edie Graham, representing Parents For Public Schools of Jackson, said her group works with teachers and hires artists to assist schools. “This has been an awesome year for artists, artwork and student participation. … The kids were so excited to see how everything has come to fruition. Now, they are sharing their experiences with their friends and what they’ve accomplished. Art helps kids grow and relate the craft to their schoolwork. It even makes them happier.”
LesTrina Bailey, a JSU senior elementary education major who plans to minor in art, worked with students from Johnson and Walton elementary schools. She described her experiences of working with the young talent as “phenomenal.” At Johnson, she and students produced artwork using ceiling tiles measuring 6 feet tall, 8 feet wide. Their project incorporates the school’s motto: “Teaching Individuals to Grow and Excel While Reaching for the Stars.” The exhibit, which spotlights the Georgetown community and Freedom Corner, includes a quote by Evers that says, “The gifts of God should be enjoyed by all citizens in Mississippi.” It also pays homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Overall, Bailey said she observed that students learned a lot from other students and noted the therapeutic benefits of drawing. “It relaxes people, stimulates their mind and helps steer them away from anger. Their grades even improved.”
Mumford, too, recalls art’s transformative magic.
“When I was younger I was far more successful in expressing myself artistically rather than verbally. A lot of these kids are the same way. While some students may want to be heard, others simply may want to be seen.”
He bemoans that many people, unfortunately, don’t see art as a career. They may think it’s no different than a musician or writer. A lot of people don’t value the arts because they don’t fully understand the discipline. Sometimes they may think a finished product took only two minutes to develop. In reality, artists must think strategically about everything placed on the canvas. Art imitates life because you have to learn how to see things differently. If you see things the same way all the time, you’ll risk becoming stagnant.”
Mumford said, “Everyday in my life I purposely try to view things differently – not in terms of just art but in everyday situations. Even if the event is bad, I try to think how I would handle it from an artistic standpoint. Then, I can begin to see the results of a bad situation that turns good. Most people are walking around blindly and often see the negative side of everything. In all art there’s a message, even in tragedy.”