Community Building Through Public Art - 10 Questions with Art Educator Amanda Holloway and Students of James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Middle School
Earlier this month, a dynamic collective of local businesses, artists, educators, and community leaders teamed up to facilitate a community driven public art project on the exterior façade of Knopf & Sons Bindery, located at 1817 Florida Avenue, Jacksonville, FL 32206. The 150’ mixed-media mural, appropriately named Dream Big, is on an exterior wall along E 8th Street, which receives heavy foot traffic due to its proximity to a JTA bus stop and heavy vehicle traffic due to its proximity to on-and-off ramps for the Martin Luther King Jr Parkway.
The mural, which was designed by students from James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Middle School and their art teacher, Amanda Holloway, was inspired by Taylor Richardson, a 7th grade student at The Boles School who has aspirations of becoming a scientist, engineer, and an astronaut. Richardson recently raised over $100,000 through a crowdsourcing campaign to sponsor 1,000 young girls to see Disney's “A Wrinkle in Time” in theaters at no expense.
This public art project is in support of STEAM, an educational approach to learning that uses science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. The team behind Dream Big, which in addition to Holloway and her students includes Roosevelt Watson III, Nadia Ramoutar, Ryan McNair, Scotty Briggs, and Cheyenne Williams, was in-part inspired after attending a 2017 keynote presentation by artist and community alchemist Lily Yeh, which was included as part of State of the Arts 2017, presented by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.
This initiative is part of Public Art Week 2018 – Building A Better Community, which is a weeklong celebration of Jacksonville’s public art and highlights the benefits that are created when investments are made in art that is accessible by all. Public Art Week is led by the Cultural Council to encourage residents and visitors to explore and engage with works of art that comprise Jacksonville’s rapidly developing artistic and creative landscapes. This year's presenting sponsor is JEA.
The public is invited to attend a dedication ceremony for the mural on Saturday, April 7 starting at 10:00 am. Immediately following, the public can be a part of the project and assist with the creative process. This is a family-friendly activity and is appropriate for individuals of all ability levels. Because the project utilizes reclaimed materials, individuals are encouraged to bring any old tiles, glass, or mirrors that can be repurposed and used in the mosaic.
You can contribute funds to the Dream Big public art project through their crowdsourcing campaign.
10 Questions with Amanda Holloway and Students of James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Middle School
How would you describe the relationship between public Art and community building?
(A. Holloway) Public art creates a heightened sense of pride for the members in any community, city, or state where it resides. Say each morning and evening we all walk past an iconic sculpture on our way to different destinations, regardless of any differences that we may have, we can all relate and connect over the fact that this sculpture is something we recognize, become familiar with, connect to, and maybe even form bond around. Public art adds culture, character, color, sparkle, interest, excitement, and PRIDE to a community. What better community building is there?
How did this initiative come to be? And what was the planning process like?
(A. Holloway) Well, I signed up myself and the amazing JWJ Artists to create an art installation at Color Me Kona, a participatory arts event held in November put on by Jax Kids Mural Project and Kona Skatepark. I wasn’t sure how many kids I would get to participate, or if they would even be into it. But, over 50 of my students showed up and they just had SO much FUN! It was such a strong positive bonding experience for all of us that I decided on that day that projects and event like that would be our thing! Moving forward, I intend to involve the JWJ Artists in at least two public art projects per year.
The planning process is explained in detail on my teacher blog, but in a nutshell: The building owner, Cheyenne Knopf Williams; creative director, Nadia Ramotaur; and myself came up with a theme and invited three rock star student artists, Ciera Frazier, Mahima Kedlaya, and Camden Pao, to be a part of the design team. Their incredible biosare posted in my teacher blog and are worth a read. These students have attended every single meeting we’ve had at the warehouse and were gave the task of creating the entire design for the mural. They worked with each other to come up with a stellar rough draft of a galactic scene. Artists Ryan McNair, Roosevelt Watson III, and Scotty Briggs are also playing integral roles in the project, adding different elements into the design that Ciera, Mahima, and Camden created. Between us all, but most especially with the input of the students, I think we have a pretty awesome “Dream Team”.
What were some expectations or assumptions you had going into this project and how do they compare to what you now know after several weeks of working on the wall?
(A. Holloway) As a teacher who instructs multiple classes of upwards of 60 children all day long, my vision was to step back from wearing my "teacher hat" and literally let the kids take charge so that I could just create and have fun with them. So … what did I expect? I expected chaos, and I was ready for it!
Surprisingly, however, this entire project has flowed into itself so smoothly. It’s been wonderful! Every member of our team has picked up slack when others needed a break, provided supplies when we ran out, came up with innovative and funky new ideas that the rest may not have thought of, and made this whole experience of large-scale public art making seem like something we can totally handle and do again!
What have you learned as a result of this community driven/ participatory public Art initiative?
(A. Holloway) I’m not sure how much you remember about being 12 or 13, but kids this age are VERY much inside their own heads and concerned with themselves. It is a stage in life where we live in our "me" bubble. Offering my students the opportunity to be a part of something larger than themselves, where they are interacting and collaborating with each other outside of the classroom, has allowed me to witness such a lovely growth in each of them. They made creative choices with classmates they hadn’t met before, as well as strangers who have now become their friends. These are individuals that they may not have otherwise worked with. They have also met and interacted with artists, business owners, passers-by, and residents of the neighborhood. this is REAL community building and it is occurring for them at such a young age!
I’ve learned that, for a child's actual education, state mandated curriculum and standardized testing are not even comparable to real life, community based, learning experiences. At school, students only really converse with their friends. In class, they sit facing one direction and they are told what to do and when to speak or give their opinion. Incorporating my students into these real world public art projects, alongside real people so different from themselves, allows them space to grow and expand as humans, way beyond the classroom walls. They are actually given a chance to demonstrate decision making, creativity, leadership, and connectivity with members of their community outside of campus grounds.
I will say that having great administration makes a BIG difference in any arts program. Principal Feagins has been extremely supportive of all of the off-campus projects that I get my kids involved with. Ms. Pierre and I are planning a permanent mosaic mural for our campus for 2018, even though state funding has only allotted us 0.47 cents per student for the upcoming year, which is so sad. Our JWJ art department will push through with shining creative artistic colors, whether we are on our own campus, in downtown, or in your community. We will continue to build more connections between all Jacksonville's neighborhoods and the fabulously diverse peoples who call them home!
In your opinion, what is the value of public Art?
At the very beginning of each school year, I dedicate an entire unit to emphasizing the importance of public art. I start by asking my students how many of them have ever been to an art gallery or museum. You’d be shocked at how few hands go up. We discuss how public art means that you don’t have to confirm to any societal molds or standards to engage with art. It is always accessible so you don’t have to make plans or visit it within certain hours. And, IT’S FREE to experience! Kids start to actually SEE and NOTICE more of what’s around them and develop a sense of pride for their communities based on which public art pieces they have mutually seen or which ones they really like.
Some of my favorite "art-teachery" moments are when a student comes up to me so excited with pictures on their cell phone, “Ms. Holloway, I saw this mural when I was riding the bus home from school yesterday. You showed it to us on the slideshow, isn’t it awesome?!”, or “Ms. Holloway, my family and I went to (wherever) on spring break and found these really funky sculptures in a park. I had to take pictures!”, etc.
In my classroom, we talk a lot about the "WHY’s" of public art making. These discussions are my absolute favorites! “Why did the Artist paint this?’, “What do you see?”, “What does it mean?”, “How do you know that?”, and “What can you interpret from this piece?” They begin to actually think longer and more intellectually about what they are looking at.
Is the artist making a political statement? Is this mural about a social justice issue? How do you relate to the piece? Can humor be found in this piece? Or, is this piece just art for the sake of art?
Watching children discover the deeper meanings behind artworks is so super magical!
What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
(Students) The most challenging part was bringing everyone’s ideas together and figuring out a way to put it on the wall while staying true to the outer space theme. It was also challenging when we worked on the splatter paint part to not make it too bright.
What is your most memorable experience from working on this project?
(Students) Meeting professional artists was really cool. They gave us the opportunity to test out new things like spray paint and trusted us to design a HUGE wall with them.
Figuring out how to fit the tiles and mirrors together in a perfect puzzle design was tricky, but very fun. It was rewarding once we got the technique down. I want to mosaic EVERYTHING now, but I don't know if my mom would like that.
Another favorite memory is making new friends that I didn’t know before and working with them on an art project that we created. Now we talk in the halls at school.
What does “Dream Big” mean to you?
(Students) “Dream Big” means to follow your goals and not doubt yourself. It means to follow your dreams and never give up. To explore new possibilities and work hard to achieve what you believe in. It means to aim for bigger things in life, and to not hesitate, even if those things seem scary or like you can’t do them. At least try to do them, because you probably can do it.
(A. Holloway) One of the things mentioned in the teacher blog is the reason behind WHY we chose this title. There is a local girl, Taylor Richardson, who attends the Bolles School, and at the age of 14 has already attended NASA Space Camp and helped raise millions of dollars for other girls to do the same. Her dream is to be on the first mission to Mars. JWJ artists added in her portrait when they were designing the mural. She's depicted staring off into outer space through her bedroom window, dreaming of her future mission.
How do you think working together on projects such as this can help us bridge our differences and be better classmates, friends, and neighbors?
(Students) It allows you to learn about other peoples’ lives and see what other neighborhoods are like that might be different than your own. And then people become more understanding of each-others’ differences because you have made artwork together, no matter how different you are. It’s like achieving a common goal, and it feels really good.
What would you say to encourage others to come out on April 7th?
(Students) We would tell them that they will be improving a community and making a positive change in Jacksonville by participating in the mural. Plus it’s fun, and everyone should just come to see it anyway!
This is the most fun project that we have EVER done. Our mural will be there forever. So, if other people come and add onto it, when we are older, we can all go back to this wall and say, “I helped make that mural and learned fun new things, left my mark on the city, and I made new friends while doing it.”