On a recent field trip to Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, seventh graders encountered powerful works of art dealing with difficult subjects: immigration, family separation, national identity, and what it means to strive for the American dream.
The exhibit, called "Sanctuary Cities and the Politics of the American Dream," includes works from 127 artists from New Haven and around the country (more than 60 percent of whom are immigrants) rendered in paint, photography, plaster, fabric and other media.
The exhibit's curator, former Foote art associate Lucy McClure, met an eager group of seventh graders and art teacher Karla Matheny early on the morning of Oct. 21 in the art gallery's light-filled atrium. "I hope you will approach this exhibition with an open heart, a sense of curiosity and courage to build a better community as we attempt to topple the physical and emotional borders that divide us," Lucy said.
After giving students a few minutes to wander the gallery, Lucy directed their attention to a plaster relief by New Haven artist Susan Clinard called "White Space: White Noise. Family Separation at the Border." The relief depicts a familiar group of huddled masses—tiny figures of women, children and men, holding each other, slumped over with looks of anguish or despair.
"She installed this piece at a low height so that we have to crouch to see it," Lucy pointed out to the class. "She was thinking about how we would be in discomfort physically while we look at it."
Next, the students were directed toward a pair of photographs by artist Ellen Jacob, each depicting two people: one facing the camera, the other with their back turned. The piece highlights the struggle that comes when a family has mixed immigration status. In this case, a daughter who is a U.S. citizen faces the camera while her mother, an undocumented immigrant clutching her daughter's hand, faces a wall.
"I think it's hard for us to imagine the feeling they have because we are so safe and secure," Karla said. "It's hard for us to think about that because it's so far from what our reality really is."
Across the gallery, a student spied a towering tapestry by Brooklyn-based artist Kat Chavez made up of small fabric squares pinned to a freestanding wall. Lucy explained that each painted square represents a life lost on the U.S.-Mexico border that has been documented. Beneath that, on a small pedestal, is a pile of squares representing the unknown lives lost. It's a powerful symbol and the students took it in silently.
"Think about artists as change-makers," Lucy encouraged the students. "Historically, artists have opened the minds of people or at least attempted to create dialogue using the arts. Sometimes you don't have to speak the same language, or be from the same country, to understand what they are trying to convey."
Upstairs, in another gallery, the students explored dozens more works, including a sculpture called "Angry Ladies" by artist Jaishri Abichandani. The sculpture depicts figures of more than a dozen brown-skinned women, each holding a sign with slogans such as "Black Lives Matter" and "Women's Rights are Human Rights," as well as others which are blank. After discussing the piece, Karla and Lucy asked each student to write on an orange sticky-note what their sign would say and stick it to the pedestal.
Students busily scrawled messages such as "Women's Rights!", "All People Are Created Equal," "This Land is OUR Land," "Love Nature Not $" and "Save the Snow Leopards."
The last stop was a painting called "Sanctuary City: A New Haeven" by local artist Tony Falcone, which imagines downtown New Haven and Yale's campus under an ethereal dome of some sort. While New Haven has taken symbolic steps toward becoming a sanctuary city, Lucy explained to students, it is not a legal sanctuary city—meaning there's only so much protection the city can offer undocumented families.
After returning to campus, seventh graders had one more task: write on a blue sticky note a cause they want to pursue for their "Heroes Project," a longstanding seventh grade unit that is being re-imagined by the faculty this year. Instead of simply picking any figure they admire as the subject of an essay and artistic portrait, the students will specifically choose a change-maker.
The messages on the sticky notes hinted at the projects to come—and on a developing set of values that will propel these students to become their own change-makers, and to create a more just and sustainable world for tomorrow.