Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Preparing for the Day of the Dead

The invitation in the mail read" Mambo Muerto!

"According to legend ... when the best benefit party of the year collides with
November 1, Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos, the undying spirit of art
will rise to join the fun, and a spicy Latino celebration of the soul will ensue

... it's ¡Mambo Muerto! Shake the skeletons out of your closet and join us for SPACES' Annual Benefit & Silent Auction!"

SPACES gallery has been a supportive partner of the visual arts program at Max Hayes High School for several years, inviting our students to special viewings of gallery exhibitions and providing opportunities for the kids to meet and occasionally work with resident artists.

When I received an e-mail request for volunteers to help create decorations for their annual benefit, I immediately extended the invitation to the Art Club.

(click here for a Wikipedia link to "Day of the Dead")

I have never had such an enthusiastic group of artists in all of my years of teaching in the Cleveland schools. For many of these kids, late afternoons at home can be very boring, and so they relish the chance to socialize with their friends just as much as they enjoy the opportunity to create. The adventure of visiting a new place, combined with the promise of earning community service hours, provided plenty of incentive for six of the members to brave the rain, and walk the twenty blocks that separate the gallery from the school.

Danny and Jeff were the first to arrive, much to the delight of the SPACES staff. They were quickly put to work tracing a giant skeleton onto foam core board, and carefully cutting out the bones with Exacto knives.

Danny, a native of Mexico, entertained the group with stories of his own family's traditions as they celebrate the Day of the Dead. Later on he confided how cool it was that everyone seemed so interested in his ancestral customs. Usually he gets teased about his Mexican heritage.

Sarah, Cora, Deseraee, and Gabriel sloshed into the gallery about ten minutes after the first two boys. They were given several choices of tasks from "glitterizing" cardboard skulls, painting borders on table cloths, or hollowing out sugar skulls, to creating tissue paper carnations. They began with the flowers, then moved on to the glitter and paint. Before we knew it, the time had come to hurry back out to the bus stop. They were all invited to come back Wednesday and help build the traditional Dias del Muerto Fiesta altar.

"Can we?" Eager faces looked at me hopefully.

"Of course" I'd never dream of spoiling this kind of fun.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature is not such a good sport as I am. When we walked out the door the rain had turned to sleet.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Reflection among the Graves

I remember exploring an old country church cemetery in Hiram Township near my grandmother’s house, when I was a little girl. I was fascinated by the inscriptions on the headstones, and with the diligence of an archeologist, I examined the time worn markers, carefully deciphering the birth and death dates. I would work the equations in my head so that I could figure out the ages of the persons whose graves I tread upon. I would always feel so sad to discover the burial plot of a very young person or a child, imagining the grief of the family.
Even now, cemeteries still have an allure, and it is not unusual for me to stop and take a look around if I am driving by one, and I have a little time on my hands.
One of my favorites is the historic Lakeview Cemetery, which straddles the border of Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. It is the final resting place of many of the city’s most famous citizens, from President James Garfield and billionaire John D Rockefeller, to law man Elliot Ness and inventor Charles Brush.

In Lakeview Cemetery there are thousands of graves, each one representing the final page of a life story. Some graves are nearly anonymous, with a simple inscription of Mother, Father, or Infant. Others give the visitor a bit more; a name, birth and death dates, and occasionally, a verse from the Bible. My favorites are the elaborately carved monuments. Stained by acid rains and the polluted atmosphere of a city where fortunes were accrued in the steel mills and factories, figures of angels, saints and the deceased stare eternally at the landscape.
I can’t help but wonder about the people who sleep forever below the grass. Where they happy or miserable? Did their lives end with an illness, accident, or could they have been murdered? Who did they leave behind? Were they loved or lonely?
I can walk for miles here along the roads and pathways. Wandering between the headstones, I become cognizant of my own time on earth, and begin to contemplate the impact I’ve made so far.
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Finger Painting: We go back to the Basics

"I want this group to be able to do things you don't normally do in your regular art classes."
I stood in the center of about ten students gathered in the art studio for the first organizational meeting of the Max Hayes Art Club.
"We can visit galleries and meet professional artists in their studios, we can experiment with different mediums, I have tons of ideas. How about you guys? What would you like to do?"
A short silence ensued while eyes scoured the room for inspiration.
"I want to finger-paint."
Smirking at the silliness, I shook my head. "C'mon now. Be serious."
My comment unleashed a torrent of teen-aged voices. "I want to finger-paint too!", "I never got a chance in kindergarten.", "It would be the most fun thing EVER!", "I love finger-painting!", "Pleeease, please, please, let us finger-paint!"
Wow! I hadn't seen so much adolescent enthusiasm for an activity that didn't involve food in a long, long time. It would be wrong to quash this kind of passion. So, setting aside my personal dislike for this kiddie-kraft, I capitulated.
"Okay then... next Thursday we will finger-paint."

My excited little group began to gather in the art room before the last class of the day was even over. A few stopped in to tell me they would be late, since other commitments needed their attention first, but to PLEASE make sure and save them some paint.

About ten years ago, I gratefully accepted a big box of art supplies from a friend who was retiring from teaching elementary school. In it were all kinds of craft items and paper tablets along with several dusty jars of finger paint. After sitting in my closet for a decade I hoped they had not dried out.

A table in the back of the room was cleared to make room for large paper, and I spooned out dishes of the colorful gel, slightly shrunken, but still usable.

Eager hands could hardly wait. It was time to get messy.

There is something both primal and decadent about finger paint. A lifetime of hand washing caused some reluctance to stick my own paws in the paint, but I forced myself to make the plunge. Although I smeared and scribbled a little with my fingers, I still could not cross that uncomfortable mental barrier of "ickyness", and after a few minutes, retreated to the sink.

The kids, however, happily experimented with color mixing and technique. Given complete creative freedom, images began to emerge. Landscapes, rainbows, monsters, and Halloween characters soon covered the tables.

As four o'clock neared, the inevitable question was raised;

"When are we going to do this again?"

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Sunday, October 12, 2008


Overheard at a party last night:
Republican 1: I've voted Republican for the past 30 years, but this time I'm voting for Obama.
Republican 2: But he's BLACK!
Republican 1: I lost $40,000 this week. How much did you lose?
Republican 2: $38,000.
Republican 1: Think about it.
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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Marian Wright Edelman at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

The auditorium was filling up quickly. "Darn!" I thought, "Too late to get an aisle seat..No, I think I see a few empty rows down near the stage." I hurried to throw my purse and jacket across two cushioned chairs, and once having staked my claim, flopped down to wait for the speaker to take the podium.
I'd been invited to the evening's reception by my friend, Susan Miller, to hear a presentation by Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund and award winning author. Ms Edelman came to Cleveland this week to promote her latest book, The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is so Small - Charting a Course for the next Generation, and celebrate the opening of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's new provocative exhibit, "Race-Are We so Different?", sponsored in part by the nonprofit organization, Facing History and Ourselves
Finally, after the representatives the event sponsors greeted the audience, the third speaker introduced Ms Edelman and called her to the stage. To my surprise, a little woman with elegantly coiffed salt and pepper hair who had been sitting quietly in front of me, stood up and walked to the microphone.
In a low voice of quiet authority, she began to read from her book. Her words grabbed the audience by our collective conscience:
"A poor black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy a one in six chance; a black girl a one in seventeen chance; a white boy a one in seventeen chance; a Latina girl a one in forty-five chance; and a white girl a one in one hundred and eleven chance."
"Child poverty and neglect, racial disparities in systems that serve children, and the Cradle to Prison Pipeline are not acts of God. They are America's immoral political and economic choices that can and must be changed with strong political, corporate, and community leadership."
The audience of more than 400 people gasped, although I was not surprised. I have been familiar with many of these statistics for several years. I cannot count the number of times I have looked over my classroom full of inner-city students and sadly wondered, "What will eventually become of them? Which of these young faces will end up behind razor-wire? Will it really be ten out of the thirty? How do we put a stop to this insanity?"
Every point she made so eloquently were themes I'd also written about over the years. It was very encouraging to hear the message repeated in a public forum large enough to have an impact. She has done the research, assembled the facts, and reached conclusions one could only arrive at if one has been not only a careful observer, but has fully experienced life in it's many facets. A smile, borne of recognizing a kindred thinker, spread across my face.
Each chapter of her book was addressed to a different audience. To the educators she wrote:
"If we want to assess the status of America's future competitiveness, national
security, and democratic health, one need only stop at the school doors through
which millions of ill-prepared students pour every day.
What do we do?
Educators need to remember what their mission is: educating children. Those
who use public schools as political patronage and job security rather than as
child learning and development sites need to be confronted and ousted. Old
interests and ways of doing business need to give way so that children's futures
can be protected. While there are many wonderful teachers and schools all over
the country, there are very few whole school systems where all children are
achieving well."
Ms Edelman reprimanded schools who implement zero-tolerance discipline policies for non-violent behavior, calling them feeder systems for the prison industry. She also spent some time chiding individual educators who don't love (or even like) children, advising them to get out of teaching. Worst of all, she warned, are those who seek to line their own pockets at the expense of innocent children. She brilliantly coined the term "affluenza" to describe the apathetic culture of the 'haves' and their deliberate avoidance of the 'have-nots'.
Every person in the audience received a copy of her new book, and of course mine is already digested, highlighted, and annotated.
I think I have discovered a new favorite author.
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