There are a lot of projects in our Education Department that often go unnoticed by the general public. We quietly (OK, if you’ve been in our offices, it’s not really all that quiet) strive each day to make a significant difference in the lives of the people with whom we’re working, but once in a while I’m really inspired to speak out and share our work with everyone.
Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial is one of those times. The exhibition opens in February of 2011, and I know it will present multiple opportunities to engage members of our community in thoughtful, productive discussions about current events and relevant social issues. Through a grant we received from the NEA, we have been able to form a partnership with students and faculty at Lynhurst 7th and 8th Grade Center in Wayne Township.
This group of students—the Junior Giant Kings—is one of the most remarkable groups of young men I have ever worked with. They are the coolest bunch of kids, and their relationships with each other, with their faculty sponsors and their growing relationship with art has been astounding to witness.
Gang strife is a growing problem in middle and high schools across the country, and Wayne Township is no exception. The Junior Giant Kings is made up of a select group of Latino and African-American boys –two groups who are experiencing increased ethnic tensions in many Indianapolis schools–who must go through a fairly rigorous application process to join. Within the group, they have daily discussions about social issues, cultural awareness and leadership. They are led by a core group of committed and dedicated young teachers–incredible men who serve as positive role models to these boys and show them what potential lies within.
Perhaps the aspect of the Junior Giant Kings program that has proven to be most advantageous (both to the students and to us here at the IMA) is that their group meets every morning in home room—the administration gives them the time to build those relationships, have productive discussions and learn to trust and respect each other. Developing these skills has allowed them to become mediators within their own school, taking it upon themselves to act as arbitrators between gang members and encouraging their peers to slow down, look fairly at a situation and be willing to hear each other out.
Where does the IMA fit in to this? Let’s go back to Hard Truths.
A variety of special programs focused on the Thornton Dial exhibition is planned; one with the Junior Giant Kings has already begun. We’ve designed a program that uses Visual Thinking Strategies (or VTS) as its core component. VTS is a facilitated discussion method that, through discussions about works of art, encourages careful looking, development of critical thinking skills, increased use of vocabulary and openness to multiple points of view. The discussions are completely student-driven and evolve based on participants’ comments, while the facilitator maintains a neutral and non-judgmental position throughout.
Through VTS, the students learn to look at artwork in a different way (or for the first time), yet in a way that allows them to incorporate their own experiences, observations and opinions without the threat of being corrected or criticized. It is precisely this kind of discussion that can lead to more productive conflict resolution and a greater sense of understanding in their everyday lives.
We have had the great pleasure to visit Lynhurst on several occasions and to lead the Junior Giant Kings in VTS discussions. Soon they will begin in-class activities that build on the skills VTS teaches and apply them through writing and other language arts experiences. Perhaps the most rewarding experience I have shared with the Kings so far, however, was several weeks ago when they visited the museum. Each month, we are featuring a different work by Thornton Dial on display as a sort of “preview piece”, and 13 boys came out one Friday afternoon (some even skipping basketball practice to come!) to discuss one of these pieces in addition to several other works of art throughout the galleries.
I am constantly astounded by the depth and insight teens can share through these sessions. In a culture that supports machismo and defensiveness in its youth, it is rare but extraordinary to listen to the boys open up, speak freely and reflect on the art they’re seeing…and yet, through use of VTS coupled with the intricacies and ambiguous nature of Dial’s work, we spent almost 15 minutes discussing a single work of art. The insightfulness of their observations and comments was exceptional.
I find myself so grateful and truly honored to have the chance to work with the Junior Giant Kings in this context and to be a part of how their love and appreciation for art is developing. I believe teens and young people have a very important role to play in the museum and its galleries, and they deserve and need to be given opportunities to explore artwork in a safe and non-critical environment.
So, through the school visits, the IMA field trips, the in-class activities and a tour of the Dial show early in the new year, we hope to foster a sense of ownership and confidence amongst the Junior Giant Kings. We are incredibly fortunate to have their teachers as advocates and partners in this effort, and to see how these phenomenal young men are well on their way to becoming phenomenal adults.