DCPS Citywide Arts Exhibit: A Public Display of Expression  

End-of-the-year exhibition celebrates the work of student artists and teachers from all grade levels


Bancroft-Foy
Photo by Andy Le
Meghan Foy, an art teacher at Bancroft Elementary School, poses with some student art work hanging in a corridor at the Ward 1 school. “I think art should be free,” she said. “I give kids a lot of choices – let them learn what they want to learn.”
Bancroft-Student
Photo by Andy Le
Lily Perez (left), a fourth-grader at Bancroft Elementary School in Ward 1, said, “I feel like having a lot of freedom … can help you express yourself through your artwork.”
Phelps Art
Photo by Fred Lewis
Tashawn Jackson, a junior at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Ward 5, poses with Phelps art teacher Tafari Wald. Jackson, who won last year’s Congressional Art Competition, said he’s grown as an artist under the instruction of Mr. Wald, who works to help Jackson refine his technique and find his own style.
Sousa-Art
Photo by Andy Le
A student in Jenna Lee’s art class at Sousa Middle School in Ward 7 applies glue to a piece of construction paper during an exercise that focused on the architecture of Antoni Gaudi.
Sousa-Art2
Photo by Andy Le
Sousa Middle School art teacher Jenna Lee poses with student Alexus Bowman, who says, “Out of all my classes, I can express myself here.”

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On Friday night, DC Public Schools unveiled the work of hundreds of students in all grade levels at the annual Citywide Visual Arts Exhibition, an event that celebrates the strength and diversity of art programs district-wide as well as the creativity of DCPS students. 

The exhibit, which features nearly 1,000 works of art and is on display at American University’s Katzen Center Rotunda through June 17, offers a glimpse of what goes on inside art classrooms throughout the district, where students in elementary school, middle grades and high school use the arts as a form of expression and talented teachers work to develop students’ skills and help them see their world in a different way.

For example, at Bancroft Elementary in Ward 1, art teacher Meghan Foy puts the focus on creativity, giving students the freedom to create and express themselves. At Sousa Middle School in Ward 7, art teacher Jenna Lee provides valuable perspectives on art history and the techniques of the masters. And at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Ward 5, art teacher Tafari Wald challenges students to refine their craft and create something new.

BANCROFT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Meghan Foy describes her art class at Bancroft Elementary as “organized chaos.” She believes if students have the freedom to create without limits, there is no limit to what they can do.

“In an arts class, management has to be good, but otherwise free,” Foy said. “The challenge I find is getting students to understand that it’s OK to do something different and there is not just one answer.”

Foy developed this philosophy in high school, under the direction of a strict art teacher. Paintings were to be flat – no discernable brush strokes – and had to closely resemble their subjects.

“It killed me. You couldn’t do what you were interested in,” said Foy, who admits she nearly scrapped art because instruction stifled her creativity. “Fortunately, I had other teachers who would say, ‘Here’s the goal; let’s work toward it.’”

She became an art teacher to give students choices and help them explore their creativity.

“Being strict gives you a lot of stamped images,” she said. “You get the same flower, the same landscape [from each student]. It’s not as creative. It doesn’t give kids enough choices. I think art should be free. I give kids a lot of choices – let them learn what they want to learn … and I show them how to do it.”

In her classroom, Foy works with shapes as the foundation for instruction. Students learn to see images as a series of shapes first and then they can focus on the details. That approach transfers well to other classes at the school where teachers incorporate art in their lesson plans.

“Other teachers say my students are good at drawing people, not just stick figures. And I say, ‘I hope they don’t draw stick figures – they know people are made up of shapes,’” Foy said.

For students like kindergartner McKenzie Ruiz, 6, and fourth-grader Lily Perez, 10, the approach works well. Ruiz has learned self-control in the “organized chaos” of her classroom, and Perez has found a form of self-expression through the choices offered in her art class. 

“Ms. Foy teaches us how to paint and take our time. If you do it fast, you could mess up and it would be scribble scrabble. That’s why you have to take your time,” Ruiz said.

“I like that there aren’t many guidelines. You have more freedom,” Perez added. “I feel like having a lot of freedom like that can help you express yourself through your artwork. … I feel like art class is more of a relaxed class which might be helpful – you’re not really stressed out a lot.”

SOUSA MIDDLE SCHOOL

At Sousa Middle School, a Catalyst Arts Integration school, art teacher Jenna Lee seeks to expose students to a variety of visual artists and new styles they might not have seen. From there, she lets them explore those styles, while infusing their own creativity and point-of-view into their art. 

Recently, students began discussing the work of Keith Haring, an artist and social activist whose work focused on the New York City street culture of the 1980s. As a class, students discussed Haring’s art and the social issues connected to it, before creating their own pieces that reflected Haring’s style. The class took a similar approach in studying the work of Austin Kleon, a Texas artist and writer, whose “blackout” style creates art and poetry by blacking-out large sections of a text to expose certain words that together make a poetic statement.

“I show them how a visual artist is using art in the real world to make money,” Lee said. “It’s nice being an arts integration school because integration happens in other classes and we can focus on the fine arts side of it.”  

For student Alexus Bowman, 15, Lee’s class is a sanctuary where she can explore and create and feel safe about expressing herself.

“Out of all my classes, I can express myself here,” said Bowman, who will attend Ellington School of the Arts in the fall. “My emotions change so when I’m painting and I feel upset about something, it makes me feel better.”

Lee said she continues to be amazed by her students’ ability to take deep concepts and incorporate them into their own work. For example, one assignment asked students to create symbols that identify them.

“One student wanted to show her family and chose to depict a couch – which is completely different than what you’d expect,” Lee said. “Some took a more traditional approach to creating symbols but put them together in a creative and interesting way. Their ability to think abstractly has been the most impressive thing to me.”

Lee said the end-of-the-year Citywide Visual Arts Exhibition gives students a chance to express themselves to a larger audience and lets them show what they’ve learned and what they can do.

“I think people will be blown away at what our students are doing,” she said. “It’s great that people can see how important [the arts are] to students. They’re not just doing arts and crafts.”

PHELPS ACE HIGH SCHOOL

At Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, art teacher Tafari Wald seeks to refine basic concepts – the elements and principles of art – while developing talent and fostering creativity.

First, Wald said, students must master the foundations. Introductory classes allow him to see who has talent and potential or simply an interest in art and/or architecture that can be cultivated in more advanced classes.

From there, students, such as Phelps junior Tashawn Jackson, are asked to “discover something, or create something new or unheard of” in more advanced classes.

“Observational drawing is a basic thing to learn value and line, the principles of art. Once they have the basics, they can create their own works of art,” Wald said. “Tashawn’s drawing is incredible. He has the ability now, so what’s next? He can still work as a realistic artist, but are you going to be able to show me something new?”

Wald says art is an ever-evolving process that leads students to discoveries – new styles and techniques – and helps them see the world and themselves differently.

“There is nothing new – and that’s a good thing,” Wald said. “I encourage students to study art they admire and create something out of that.”

Jackson, who last year won the 30th annual Congressional Art Competition sponsored by DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, has a keen eye for detail and loves drawing and portraiture. He developed his talent at Sousa Middle School and continues to refine his craft at Phelps.

“Here, I’ve grown and my art work is growing,” Jackson said. “When I came here, there were more opportunities for me. Almost every day there’s a new competition or deadline to meet. I like that challenge. I’m learning something every day.”

DISTRICTWIDE ARTS APPROACH

Marni Leikin, content manager of the visual arts program for DCPS, said the biggest shift for visual arts education in the district is the emphasis on creative problem-solving and self-expression as the central component of every lesson, as opposed to the language, elements and mechanics of arts.

“We’re teaching kids to think creatively on questions that have open-ended answers,” said Leikin, who is working on a comprehensive curriculum for visual arts education in DC Public Schools. “We’re giving them the opportunity to express themselves. This helps students become more invested in the process.”

In past years, for example, students in a high school drawing class might spend several weeks on a shading exercise that teaches value – the lightness or darkness of a color. Today, that exercise might be a mini-lesson that leads to a final assessment in which students are asked to draw a special person or moment in their lives and incorporate what they’ve learned about value into the piece they create.

“Art class is about coming up with your own solutions and making those aesthetic decisions,” she said, adding that arts build a sense of resilience and commitment that students can apply to other parts of their lives – in school and careers. “It’s important to get their brains working.”  

Leikin said the end-of-the-year Citywide Visual Art Exhibition celebrates the spirit of this approach to arts education as well as the talent and creativity of DCPS students and teachers.

“We’re bringing together all teachers and all students to honor their hard work, talent and commitment – and creating a sense of pride in what we do,” Leikin said, noting that for the first time this year scholarships and prizes will be awarded to students to celebrate their work. “This is open to the public, which is really important for people to see what’s happening in DCPS.”

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