The Art of Schooling

Ethan Tate

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On most South Side elementary school playgrounds, the assortment of playthings is a pretty standard affair. A few basketball hoops, a squeaky swing set if you’re lucky, and woodchips to break a fall. Games of hide-and-go-seek are not hard to come by, and the joy of the game stands in defiance of these schools’ uninspiring settings. South Side elementary and middle schools are largely relics of the 1950s architectural functionalist movement, which treated schools as no-frills projects, warehouses for an unproductive commodity: children. But at Arthur Dixon Elementary School in Chatham, hide-and-go-seek is much more than mere child’s play–it’s the name of the game.

Interspersed throughout the school yard, three human-form metal sculptures, created by Chicago artist Faheem Majeed, depict the iconic playground diversion’s defining poses. A red full body sculpture leans against a tree while “counting down;” the second sculpture, its metal framework painted in Crayola yellow, hides; and the third, completing the primary color trifecta with a blue finish, is lurching forward, teetering on the brink between still art and the living. When the bell rings for recess, students at Dixon play among their still counterparts, and as the interchange between art and child unfolds, no one seems to notice how unusual the scene is.

That is with the exception of Pamela Sherrod Anderson, the writer, director, and co-producer of the “The Curators of Dixon School.” The film, Anderson’s first feature-length work, shines a spotlight on an educational approach rarely associated with the South Side of Chicago, or public schools in general. Namely, that a school covered in art within reach of students will inspire better learning. The feature acts as an exhibition of the interactive arts museum that is Dixon School, tracing several interwoven narratives over the course of two years.

Anderson describes the unifying thread through her career as a journalist, director, and film producer as the “love of all things story,” a love that has proved infectious given the reception of her film at the 2012 Harvest Black Film Festival, where it debuted in August and was awarded Best Feature. A visually entrancing exposition of the value of art in schools, “The Curators of Dixon” is a story without an overt agenda, one that raises questions quietly, where inference remains murky, and yet also compels viewers to “go seek” their own answers and their own questions. Like the subliminal, educative force of art at work within Dixon, Anderson’s film pulls you back into the schoolyard without so much as a “ready or not, here I come.”

The game continues indoors. Dixon’s bright yellow hallways are lined with over 200 pieces of free-standing art–sculptures, pottery, painting, and tapestries, all works created by students, faculty, and outside artists.  Not featured in the documentary due to copyright costs, the school corridors resonate with the likes of Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald at all hours of the school day. Dixon’s artistic ecosystem certainly doesn’t leave the curriculum untouched. Students learn about history, social science, and even math by interacting with the art that reflects their own cultural heritage–the school is 99.4 percent black–learning about the world through the strokes of those who came before.

“There’s a sensory stimulus all the time, there are no blank walls. Every time a student sees a wall, it triggers a thought process. With art teaching, we’ve been able to integrate it with other subjects say, when learning about the Harlem Renaissance,” says Joan Crisler, who was principal of Dixon for 20 years and the initiator of the art program.

Here, the honor roll doesn’t exclude art, music, and library science, as a heart-warming celebratory lunch scene in the documentary illustrates. Honor is a holistic title, and the gravitas with which it is held in the school accounts for the excellent discipline and conduct at Dixon compared to neighboring schools. Crisler explains that the system works because, “young people will live up to the standards you set for them when you show them trust and respect. We must have the highest expectations for our young people.”

During her time filming, Anderson saw the realization of Crisler’s program. “It was a lot more than just pretty pictures on the wall; it was a way to fulfill what I like to call the fourth R. In education you have reading, writing, arithmetic, and to me the fourth R is respect, and that came across very strongly in seeing the works of art,” Anderson reflected.

Even dipping your head into a water fountain at the school, you notice that this basic and ubiquitous resource again transcends the mundane. The “Drink in Remembrance” mosaic mural around a school water fountain designed by artist Carolyn Elaine pays textural and colorful homage to the cultural exchange between students at Dixon and their pen pals, students of a similar age group from Kenya. Their letters and the themes of these cross-cultural friendships are incorporated into the startling mosaic. One such theme describes the lack of access to clean water and acts as the focal point of the mural which depicts an overarching village elder offering water to both the Maasai children of Kenya and the children of Dixon. Nothing is taken for granted, and nothing is taken in isolation. In a simple act of sipping some water, students’ ears ring full of subliminal whispers about their heritage, their fortune, their connections to the earth, and the shared unity of all peoples.

The idea of interconnectedness still wet on the lips, Crisler reiterated the importance of community and the multi-faceted components of the project. Although the project began from Crisler’s private collections, it evolved into a fifteen-year long endeavor that took the work of a village to complete.

“What I found with her [Crisler,] was unlike most stories that you find with educators, where you have a school that has a strong leader really leading the way; with her it was a team effort,” says Anderson. “While she founded the art collection, she was very much a part of a team. Which is why I titled the film ‘curators,’ plural. ”

One such piece of art embodies this idea. “The Tree of Life,” a sculpture which Crisler pours herself over in the documentary, is carved out of a single piece of wood, and rises up out of the ground like the budding trunk of a tree. Intricately carved human-form figurines, resting and relying on each other’s shoulders, jointly climb up, collectively creating an infinitely grander and more beautiful item. No soul stands out, so that each individual is of equal significance to the piece. It’s easy to see how the sculpture depicts the mechanics of Dixon itself, but perhaps less overtly the sculpture represents the value-system that accounts for the unique behavior of Dixon students. All the art work at Dixon is unprotected, and yet the school has never suffered any damage or vandalism to a piece. Understanding investment in and appreciation for the commons goes against the grain in this age, and yet Dixon students preemptively champion these values. From the pupils, to the community artists, to the staff, to Crisler, Dixon the art collective is indeed just that, a collective.

But pondering all this art and its supposed subliminal impacts, the functionalist beckons: what is all this for? Dixon has some clear markers of success to back up art-in-school advocates–its discipline is high, the student body seems happy, and other departments have not received cutbacks as a result of the collecting. But, for all these signs of progress, Dixon has not been able to entirely transcend its context; the artistic haven in no way defies the  South Side’s reputation for  failing schools. As of 2011, Dixon failed to meet federal educational standards and their ISAT scores are average after a long climb upwards. The school may be aesthetically pleasing and heartening, but its overall success is diminished when narrower definitions of education come to the fore.

Since the dawn of No Child Left Behind, arts advocates across the country have touted the functional arguments for keeping art education in schools. According to a May 2005 Harris Poll on American views about arts education, 86 percent of Americans believe that arts education boosts a child’s attitude towards school, and 93 percent believe that the arts are vital to receiving a well-rounded education.  The  debate over the value of testing as a measure of educational success was reignited this past September, when the Chicago Teacher’s Union held a strike partly on the platform that too much credence is given to standardized testing in Chicago Public Schools.

Yet learning and morale are two different beasts. Anderson’s film offers powerful anecdotes–in one of the film’s arcs, Methuselah, an immigrant from Liberia and the then class president of Dixon, states that he intends to one day attend Harvard. But one question that the film does not ask is whether this is a false hope. For all the acclaim that Dixon has received for its unusual approach, it’s praise that stems from a lowered bar set by other South Side schools. Methuselah, although now in college, does not attend an Ivy League institution.

But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Perhaps the art, the music, and the hope that one’s environment can inspire bears a qualitative weight that transcends a disconnected top-down framework, such as standardized testing, or the numerical rank of one’s college. In asking children to maintain an accessible gallery space, Dixon demands heightened responsibility from its students, but the game of hide and seek continues nonetheless. With eyes trained to see life as a moving masterpiece, it’s not that Dixon kids are amongst losers of the American education system. They’re just playing an entirely different game.