Students are part of important art show

Avonworth students Macey and Taea Schriefer stand in front of “Black Wall Street,” a painting by Los Angeles artist Noah Davis. They hold a painting that they created about the Watts Riots, their painting inspired by the style and themes present in the Davis work. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

The Aug. 18 issue of “Vogue” magazine includes an article headlined, “…the Most Important Art Show in America Is Underway in Pittsburgh.”

The author, John Ortved explains how “…the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, famous for showing artworks by those of African descent, joins forces with the Carnegie [Museum of Art], one of the U.S.’s most revered art institutions, to present something nearly impossible: the idea of America, through art.”

Named the “20/20 Exhibition” for the 20 artists represented from each of the museums, the artwork on display attempts to answer the question, “How might museum collections, which often seem suspended in the past, help us better see the present?”

Over the past several weeks, Avonworth eighth graders have been working on a project-based learning assignment on this subject, in collaboration with the Carnegie, following a late-September visit to the museum to see the artwork first-hand and to select works of art that they wanted to research.

Civics teacher Jason Smith said, “We wanted to build an event that was more than the traditional field trip and allow students to develop their research, presentation, and communication skills in the role of docents.”

Working in small groups, students took an in-depth look at the artists, their artwork, and the social and political conditions that inspired their art. They also created their own artistic responses with unique works that depict themes similar to those presented in the “20/20” exhibit, with research and presentation skills studied in civics, English and reading classes, and with guidance from teachers William White, Kerri Villani, Emily Hickman, Kathy Galecki and Melissa DeSimone.

“In preparation for the unit, I reached out to Dr. Christel Temple via e-mail to invite her to visit our school. I had learned about her from my preliminary visit to the museum. She is the chair of University of Pittsburgh’s Africana Studies Dept. and a professor there, as well as an author of books and articles on African-American History & Culture,” Smith said.

Dr. Temple, as well as docents from the Carnegie, visited the students in October to prep them for a student-led event held in the “20/20” galleries last Friday from 6 until 8 p.m., with students working in the roles of docents as they discussed the exhibition’s art, as well as their own creations.

Smith said that no other schools have worked with the museum in this manner.

“Many schools attend field trips there, but they have never had students work as docents. This is a first for the Carnegie and Avonworth was the first to try it out!”

Smith developed the idea by working with the museum's Associate Curator of Education, Hattie Lehman, the middle school’s English teacher, Julie Raitano, gifted support teacher Melissa DeSimone, and learning support teacher Samantha Abate.

Nearly 100 eighth grade students, with an estimated 200 guests attended, among them parents, grandparents, siblings, museum docents and staff, Avonworth school board and administration, Dr. Temple, as well as teachers and their families.

In addition to the public speaking and creative art opportunities, the bottom-line message that may have been the most valuable aspect of this learning experience was expressed by student Tia Paredes:

"This project showed me that there are still problems with race in the world, and there are still people who don't treat others fairly just because they may not be white. It is good that there are people who bring that to light through their artwork.”

Amanda Hunt, one of the co-curators of the show, summarized the importance of the “20/20,” stating, “It’s an unprecedented exhibition.”