We may admire the mathematical formulae of analytic cubism, stand in awe before a serene Raphael, or tilt our heads in bemusement at one of Jeff Koons’s inflatable lobsters. But sometimes the most affective and accessible art is made by non-artists — by amateurs and children. Unassuming and genuine, this type of work can cut through the semantic haze of contemporary expression and speak with the plain, human voice of those rarely heard. Such is the joy of amateur art, and a New York City nonprofit has managed to capture it through the combined efforts of middle school students, contemporary artists, and devoted classroom art teachers. The issues explored range from bullying to guns in schools. The medium? A school lunchroom table.
Learning through an Expanded Arts Program, or LeAp, is an arts-education nonprofit founded in 1977 to bring the arts into the New York City public school system, teaching traditional subjects with nontraditional methods. Over a hundred teaching artists represent LeAp throughout the system, reaching over 200,000 children. The artists bring subjects such as archaeology, dance, and zoology into the classroom, working to help children learn through a hands-on approach to the core curriculum. In addition, LeAp runs a number of smaller, more specialized programs, including the Public Art Program, which was developed six years ago by LeAp Deputy Director Alexandra Leff and encompasses ten schools per year in all five boroughs.
In the Public Art Program, elementary and middle school students work with teaching artists over the course of a semester, learning about public art, visiting contemporary artists in their studios, making trips to museums, and finally planning and executing their own installations. Addressing social issues in their communities, students from each school design and create a work of art on a lunchroom table, a simple yet powerful medium that embodies their daily lives at school. These tables are then placed in New York City parks near the schools themselves, bringing the students’ voices into the communities and artistic beauty into the natural setting of the parks. The concept is simple, accessible, and fairly inexpensive. The results have been nothing short of remarkable.
“When you get into the school, the kids want you, as a teacher, to leave them alone“ says Liza Papi, a longtime teaching artist who works with New Venture Academy 219X, in the South Bronx. “But when they get to know the program, you become like a god to them … they trust you. That is the real reward.” Placed with students whose knowledge of public and contemporary art is limited, if even existent, Papi takes her children to galleries and studios, the Met, MoMA, and the Guggenheim. This year, her students were particularly inspired by Thomas Nozkowski, a guest artist known for his abstract painting. They chose bullying as their subject, painting a series of circles with peace signs, hearts, and quotations (Nelson Mandela’s “Love and education are the most powerful weapon” features prominently on one of the panels). To Papi, the program is a way to open her students’ eyes to a world of abstraction they’ve never experienced. They day after they visited a gallery, she says, their art underwent a transformation. Their table is now on display in Claremont Park in the Bronx.
Ten guest artists, one for each school, visit the students in tandem with the teaching artists. They address the students either at their own studios or in the classroom, giving the kids a firsthand insight into the world of contemporary art. This year’s lineup of artists included Emma Amos, Federico Solmi, and Christo, who has been involved with the program (initially with his late wife, Jeanne-Claude) since its inception.
The Public Art Program, says founder Alexandra Leff, “builds on the idea that kids are a part of their communities and experience the same things we do.” The topics they address are sophisticated, including teen pregnancy and the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy. The tables depict jungles and chess games, flags and words, sometimes in the students’ own handwriting. The messages are simple and powerful: “stop the violence,” “education is everyone’s birthright,” “make a choice to take a chance or your life will never change.” One table, done by students at Brooklyn’s Mark Twain School for the Gifted and Talented 239K, displays a remarkable range of perspective and three-dimensional rendering. It addresses gun violence and the influence of the media in relation to it. Others use handprints and pictures of trees and burning houses to show the impact of Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island, or collage graphic novels to make a statement on bullying.
Program participants often bring their own stories to the projects, fusing the personal with the artistic. This year, the cousin of one of the students in a class that had chosen to depict gun violence was killed by a gun. Several years ago, students from a school with a special education program chose to represent their peers in wheelchairs. No matter the story, Leff says she constantly finds herself “very, very proud of my students,” both for their ability to express themselves and for the bravery it takes to address social issues in “such powerful ways.”
The tables themselves are covered in acrylic paint, canvas paper, mosaic tiles, and collaged paper. They’re lacquered to protect the surface from weather damage and sprayed with anti-graffiti paint before being sent out and placed in the parks. Each table has its own opening ceremony, in which students get a chance to speak to members of their communities; after that, the tables remain on view until the end of the summer.
In an opening ceremony on Thursday, May 23, students from all ten schools gathered in Union Square Park to share their experiences with the program, read statements about their tables, and view all of the projects, assembled together for the only time in their eight-month cycle. Christo and several other artists were in attendance. In twos and threes, students from each school stood up and gave speeches, some reading softly over the din of their peers, others met with raucous applause. Watching these middle-schoolers, who are at what Leff calls the “sink-or-swim age,” articulate issues in their communities, explain the imagery of their tables, and express a love and possession for what is undoubtedly their art, one couldn’t help but feel that the program does indeed give them a voice, and must have an impact on their lives beyond the end of summer.
In a statement about their table, the student artists from Edwin Markham Intermediate School 51R on Staten Island declared, “our table shows many of the bad choices that people can make in life. We want to show that even though there is darkness in life, there is always a way to rise above it.”
It seems they have found one such way.
LeAp’s Public Art Program runs through August in the following parks:
Central Park – artwork by students of Robert F. Kennedy School 169M
Marcus Garvey Park – artwork by students of S.T.A.R.S. Prep Academy 45M
Van Cortlandt Park – artwork by students of International School for Liberal Arts 342X
Claremont Park – artwork by students of New Venture Academy 219X
Forest Park – artwork by students of Robert E. Peary School 75Q
Juniper Valley Park – artwork by students of Walter Reed School 9Q
Detective Joseph Mayrose Park – artwork by students of 53K
Kaiser Park – artwork by students of Mark Twain School for the Gifted and Talented 239K
Willowbrook Park – artwork by students of Edwin Markham School 51R
Snug Harbor Cultural Center – artwork by students of PS/IS 25R
For more information, visit LeAp’s website.