One of the first things that Michèle Newton did in Correna Glassford's Grade 2 classroom at Chris Hadfield Public School, was put a photo of artist Angela Francis up on the screen – and introduce her as “Invisible Angela.”
Of course, the kids laughed.
They could see Angela clearly. She wasn’t invisible; she had two eyes, a nose, a mouth.
Then Newton challenged the kids to think of reasons why Angela might feel invisible in the community.
The fact that her skin was brown. That she was a woman. The fact that she was not included.
It was all part of the ‘Making Change’ Art Engagement Project for Black History Month – a volunteer, community-based project that uses art as a vehicle to explore ways of changing viewpoints and creating inclusive communities.
Newton, founder of Our Mosaic Lives and the Making Change organization, approached Bonnie Black, arts facilitator with the Simcoe County District School Board, with the idea for the new program. She’d bring in an artist to mentor the kids on ways to express important ideas through their artwork, focusing on concepts of inclusion and equity for Black History Month.
Black was impressed. Looking for a classroom that could serve as a pilot project, she immediately thought of Glassford, Grade 2 teacher at Chris Hadfield P.S.
Not only were concepts like ‘Family’ and ‘Community’ already part of the Grade 2 curriculum, Glassford regularly incorporated art into her classroom teaching, and is “very artistic in her thinking,” Black said.
Glassford, a teacher for 15 years, was also enthusiastic. “Because I love art, I try to incorporate it into everything. I believe it’s a medium of learning,” she said. “It really facilitates the learning when it’s hands-on. It gets them to think deeper, and more meaningfully.”
Big concepts for Grade 2 students, but ones they had no difficulty in embracing when Newton and Francis came into the classroom on Friday.
Francis presented the students with five “important” words - Community, Friendship, Family, Peace, Love – then challenged them to come up with words, concepts and ideas to express what each one means.
After the brainstorming session, next step would be to use those ideas and concepts as a basis for art.
The artwork could be individual or collaborative, realistic or abstract. Or, Francis said, it could be “metaphorical” – explaining by using an example of her own work, a painting of two birds sitting together as a metaphor for friendship.
Francis noted that color can be used as a tool, to express emotion. She showed the children another of her paintings, noting, “It’s peaceful and happy, and that’s what the world can be like when it’s inclusive.”
The kids sat in groups at different tables to come up with their ideas, helped by Grade 7-8 student leaders, all of them members of the Black History Month Planning Committee.
The hope is that the older students, having been involved from the beginning, will be able to take the Making Change Art Engagement Project to other classrooms at Chris Hadfield in the coming months – while the Grade 2s continue to use the ideas and concepts to create finished artwork.
“Over the month, they’re going to take the concepts of Black History Month and express it in their art,” said Black, noting that the finished ‘community engagement’ artwork from Chris Hadfield P.S. will be on display in the Rotunda at Barrie City Hall this March, as part of a special Making Change exhibit.
Black said that the Bradford school is the only elementary school participating in the Making Change Community Engagement project this year, but there are plans to widen the reach. “This is the springboard for something much bigger next year,” she said.
Francis left a thriving career in Grenada, where she was a well-known artist whose works sold for thousands of dollars.
Coming to Canada, she was suddenly an unknown. Galleries weren’t interested, and she couldn’t find a market for her “kind of artwork.”
As Newton noted, “She was still the same artist, but when she came here, she wasn’t treated as if she had the same skill. She felt invisible.”
When she couldn’t find a job, “I made my own job,” Francis said. She opened her own art studio, five or six years ago, and since then has not only built a new career but has used her space to welcome and support other artists.
Francis hosts a ‘Secret Garden’ exhibit annually. “All kinds of people can put up their artwork, so it can be inclusive of everyone,” she told the students. “Isn’t that cool?”
Glassford, Black and Chris Hadfield Principal Robin Dashnay were all present at Friday’s workshop, helping the students think of ways to express their ideas.
“I’ve really encouraged this class to take what they’re given, and go in their own direction,” said Glassford. Kids in Grade 2 often doubt their own ability, she said, which is why she works to provide them with the basic skills and tells them that art “is something you can learn. It’s also a venue for expressiveness.”
“When we had this opportunity presented to us, we asked the teachers if they would come on board,” said Dashnay. “We jumped right on it. It’s so good for so many of our kids… There are some talented artists in here.”
“I think it worked out perfectly,” Black said.
“We’re making change by triggering things, sharing ideas,” said Newton. She added that she’d like to see the Making Change Community Engagement project become a regular part of the curriculum throughout the year, not just during Black History month.
After all, she said, “We’re black all the time,” not just one month a year.