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Fine Art as Understanding

Backup of Student collage from artaware01.htm.
Barbara P. Fernandez for The New York Times. Click on image to enlarge.
A collage created by a young woman in the program.

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Created: June 1, 2005
Latest Update: June 1, 2005

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Index of Topics on Site Backup of Using Art to Build Pride
By Hilarie M. Sheets
SOURCE: The New York Times
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/01/arts/design/01ment.html. Original URL, consulted: June 1, 2005.

June 1, 2005
Using Art to Build Pride
By HILARIE M. SHEETS

MIAMI - On a recent evening at the Village, a drug rehabilitation center for adolescent girls here, a work by the artist Lorna Simpson was projected on a cinderblock wall in the dining room. Side-by-side photographs on a wooden accordion screen depicted a girl with a toy boat on her lap and the same girl with clasped hands, along with the words, "Marie said she was from Montreal/ although/ she was from Haiti."

Like every other piece that had been projected in the previous hour, the artwork, "Screen No. 1" (1986), elicited a burst of responses from the 12 girls in the room.

"A lot of times when you come to a different country you are ashamed of the way people observe you and talk about you - so you say you're from somewhere else," a girl named Ashley commented.

"Why Montreal instead of Haiti?" asked the instructor, Jillian Hernandez, an educator from the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.

"Montreal and Haiti are both based on the French language, and maybe Montreal seemed more high-class," offered another girl, Brittany.

"How does the imagery go along with the text?" Ms. Hernandez asked. "Why is there a boat in that picture?"

"They actually call Haitians 'boats,' " Ashley reported.

"I didn't know that - there you go!" Ms. Hernandez said. "I know that some kids who come for MOCA's after-school programs don't say they're Haitian because they get teased in school. So here the artist is talking about the shame that some people have about their own heritage and how they lie to protect themselves."

That a Lorna Simpson work dealing with complex issues of personal identity might be immediately accessible to girls from difficult backgrounds makes perfect sense to Ms. Hernandez. It was her idea to use contemporary artists who are women as therapeutic examples for such girls in such workshops, which got under way in Miami-Dade County last year.

The outreach program, called Women on the Rise!, has been introduced by the Museum of Contemporary Art at six centers for teenage girls coping with juvenile detention, drug abuse, sexual and physical violence or emotional disorders.

Among the artists covered are Louise Bourgeois, Ellen Gallagher, Ana Mendieta, Shirin Neshat and Carrie Mae Weems, whose art explores the emotional terrain of female sexuality, body image and ethnicity that these teenagers negotiate every day.

"A lot of girls I work with are into the segment of hip-hop culture that's very misogynist and violent," Ms. Hernandez said. "You have more girls in gangs, which I think gives them a false sense of empowerment."

Reflecting a nationwide trend, the number of girls entering Florida's juvenile justice system for committing violent crimes rose by 24 percent between 1993 and 2003 - compared with a 2 percent increase for boys in the same period, according to the state's Department of Juvenile Justice.

"When they learn about these women artists, who have had blows dealt to them and have struggled just to be able to practice art, it provides them with unexpected role models," Ms. Hernandez said.

"They identify heavily with Ana Mendieta, for instance, who was told by her high school art teacher she was no good and yet she continued on." (Ms. Mendieta was exiled from Cuba to the United States without her parents in 1961, at age 12.)

"A lot of them have been through the foster care system," Ms. Hernandez said of the workshop participants. "A lot of them have immigrant families. They understand the difficulty of coming to the United States and not knowing the language."

When educators at the Museum of Contemporary Art first contacted juvenile centers to gauge interest, they found that nothing remotely like the program existed. If the centers had any art programs at all, they were of the craft variety - quilting, knitting, making macaroni necklaces.

So Adrienne von Lates, the museum's curator of education, and Ms. Hernandez put together a curriculum of four two-hour workshops that could easily be offered at each center. To date, the program has served some 400 girls.

Appearing scarcely older than a teenager herself, Ms. Hernandez, 25, is quick to establish a rapport with each group, a relationship somewhere between mentor and big sister. The first hour is like a college-level art history class: she gives an overview of the artists being discussed, shows slides and opens the room to discussion. The language in the reading material on the artists is sophisticated; as the girls read it aloud, and Ms. Hernandez reviews any words or ideas that are difficult.

"A lot of these girls suffer from low expectations," she said. "I really come at them expecting a lot, and very often they will meet me at that level."

In the second hour, the teenagers work on an art project inspired by an artist they have just studied and that usually involves photography or collage. At the Village, one of the Lorna Simpson pieces, "Stereo Styles" (1988), consisted of 10 photographs of African-American women depicted from behind in identical dress, with only the hair styled differently. Running along the bottom of the serially mounted photos was the text: "Daring, Sensible, Severe, Long & Silky, Boyish, Ageless, Silly, Magnetic, Country Fresh, Sweet."

The girls then each found a partner so they could photograph each other's hair from behind. "It's this idea of what hair says about you," Ms. Hernandez told the girls, many of whom had been playing with each other's hair before the workshop began and greeted the project with enthusiasm.

One girl was concerned that her hair fell under the "boyish" category. "I think Lorna Simpson's talking about labels, and I think she's criticizing those labels," Ms. Hernandez said. Another chose to focus on the wildly curly tips of her subject's brown hair; another zoomed in so closely on a bun it seemed abstract.

A popular art project in the program is based on a series of collages in which the Kenya-born artist Wangechi Mutu cobbled together pieces of advertisements from beauty magazines and assembled them to create disfigured women as a way of questioning cultural ideals of perfection.

As part of "Women on the Rise!," all the groups except those at the Miami-Dade Juvenile Detention center visit the Museum of Contemporary Art. For most of them, it is the first time they have ever been to a museum.

This spring, groups took in shows by Ms. Gallagher and Ms. Bourgeois, whom they had previously studied in workshops. "I wasn't sure that they would relate to someone who was so different from them in terms of background, but they loved Louise Bourgeois," Ms. Hernandez said. (Many works by Ms. Bourgeois, now 93, who was born into an upper-middle class family in Paris, were inspired by her troubled relationship with her father.)

"One of her sculptures is of a woman's body that looks like it could be pregnant and there's a knife hovering over it," Ms. Hernandez said. "The girls suggested all these stories like, 'Maybe this woman's pregnant and she doesn't want the baby.' Or, 'Maybe this woman was raped or maybe this woman wants to kill herself.' They can deal with something that may have to do with them personally but without making themselves vulnerable."

When Ms. Hernandez leads the workshop on Ms. Mendieta, she always has the girls read this quotation from the artist: "I know if I had not discovered art, I would have been a criminal."

"I ask them what they think about that," she said. "They may say, 'I can see how if I'm feeling really angry about something, maybe I can write in a journal or draw instead of acting on something that may hurt me later.' "

"That's the lesson that gets through," she continued. "I don't know if it will change anything they do, but at least they have tools to come at it differently."

Backup of photo of fine art used in program.
Barbara P. Fernandez for The New York Times
Jillian Hernandez, right, helped create the program's curriculum.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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