Collective Voices speak

This weekend brings a special art show, “Collective Voices,” connecting the ideas of about 25 Hood River and Klickitat County middle schoolers.

In it, find a brief tour of Ireland, a mask with a marble-sized baked clay soccer ball, and a glimpse at the world of Steampunk, and much more.

Also, it’s cool to be a nerd, as Aiden Tappert says through his art.

OPENING PARTY

“Collective Voices”

(April 4-27) opens Friday at CCA, 5-7 p.m.

The rock band Toy Gun Conspiracy will perform.

Beer and wine are available for purchase, to go with complimentary appetizers.

Seventh- and eighth-graders from Hood River, Wy’east and Henkle middle schools produced works that ask the show’s title question, “What Do You See When You Look At Me?”

“Who have I been, who am I now, and who will I become?” they asked, through their art, under the guidance of three mentors and through interactions with each other.

In the youths’ six-week “Collective Voices” experience, there was a good deal of thinking inside the box — a reflective art form known as Cornell boxes using colors, images and objects and some deep looking-in at aspects of themselves.

In Friday’s opening at Columbia Center for the Arts, starting at 5 p.m., the students will present personal narratives through monologues, masks that reveal rather than conceal, and the art of their Cornell boxes. Their works will remain in display at CCA through April 27.

“I’ve always loved abstract art, and I really love theater,” said Wy’east seventh-grader Kelsey Stewart, who bordered her mask with an excerpt from her monologue: “Time begins, we are a peaceful kind, and in another place, the river continues to flow around the mountains.”

“My theme was ‘nerd’ to go with my mask,” Tappert said. “It’s going to say things that I know as a nerd and what I feel like when I’m around those kinds of people in words like intelligence, and being a leader,” said the Hood River Middle School eighth-grader.

In “Collective Voices,” students are exploring their identities including how they would like others to see them, and the program is itself an experiment, according to Gregory Smith, CCA director, who mentored the students in monologue writing.

“The students collaborated in an exploration of their own histories and the people that have influenced their lives,” he said. Artists Cyndi Strid and Douglas Hawksworth also worked with the students in weekly after school sessions at CCA.

“The artwork tells their stories through artistic representations depicting their culture, traditions, family, friends, memories, and experiences through portraiture, narrative, photography, and theatre,” Smith said.

Hawksworth, a trained mask maker and teacher, said he introduced the students to the concept of the tabula rasa, “the blank slate, being born into the world and how we become the person that we become,” he said.

“That raises a lot of questions but it came down to, ‘Don’t think about the things you like; think about why you like them, and how they make you feel, because we are not just a list of all the video games or favorite characters.’ Why do you like that character in Harry Potter and what does it remind you of? It’s a question of ‘Who are you?’”

“It’s a challenge; it feels like, ‘Am I asking them the right questions?’” said Strid, who engaged the students in associating colors and emotions, and using those colors in making their Cornell boxes.

“It’s been interesting because it gives us an outlet to show who you are because most people don’t really care; they just look at you and think they know you,” Tappert said.

“So this is an outlet to show you’re more than just some person on the street,” said Aiden, who moved to Hood River a year ago.

“It’s been really interesting because you’re going from being in your little town or school to meeting people you’ve never seen before. I think it’s a real-world kind of thing,” said Haley Blair, an eighth-grader at Henkle.

Ayva Levin, an HRMS seventh-grader, said, “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I enjoy collaborating, and it’s fun to do with people I’ve never met, letting them know, ‘This is who I am.’”

That sense of identity, perhaps even the one we hide from other people, is what Collective Visions sought to help the students explore. “It’s about those preconceived notions others have of who we are,” Smith said, “people making assumptions, and the idea of ‘What do you see when you look at me?’ and how does that translate to your artwork.”

“All of us came here with people we knew, and got introduced to some new people, and now we’ve become more and more friendly with each other and we know more about each other,” Ayva said.

Aiden explained that for their Cornell boxes the students put together “concept maps,” and discussed them with their small group. “We wrote down things that represented our group and different symbol ideas for what we thought represented the group.

“I think it’s going to be pretty interesting to see what people express out of a simple box, and their thoughts,” Aiden said.

Strid said the Cornell boxes are named for the American artist Joseph Cornell, who collected “found objects and odd assemblages” and placed them in wooden boxes (which the students covered in Plexiglas).

“He worked symbolically and metaphorically, and when people looked at them (the objects) they found new meaning,” Strid said.

Hawksworth introduced big ideas with the mask creation, but he said “keeping everyone on task and having completion points” was critical for artists at this stage; they started with drawings of their masks and extensively discussed the various media and elements they could employ, including colors, textures, shapes, and the use of objects.

“I wanted them to have a clear idea of the media. This turned out awesome,” Hawksworth said.

Some of the students, including Ayva, arrived at Collective Visions with a strong interest in making art, while others had tried drawing, theater, and poetry. But Collective Visions sought out those who were not necessarily art-oriented.

“When we met with principals and teachers, we let them know we wanted kids who are not just kids who were artists; we wanted a range of kids who were doing well, who were average; kids who were having challenges for various reasons,” Smith said. “Something interesting happens when you put people of different backgrounds together.

“There is that idea of learning about ourselves, but also seeing from others that we all want the same things, like love, respect, a great job or something, that there are a lot of common things we all want, but then how we approach it and how we get to them are different and how we respond to the world around us is different as well.

“The cool thing about working with middle schoolers is they’re starting to form opinions about who they are and some are more verbal and much further along in that process than others, and in the case of someone who is trying to figure that out and ways to explain him or herself, they need this kind of challenge,” Smith said.

The students met in small groups to work on themes and to get better acquainted, and they collaborated on group activities including a “pencil breaking” exercise, which Smith said was used to demonstrate that “Every individual adds value to the group.” The students found it was easy to break one pencil but impossible to break a bundle of pencils.

As Wy’east’s Kelsey Stewart explained, “with one person it’s easy to snap it the whole way, but you can’t really break all these people emotionally, they’re stronger in multiple than one.”

Kelsey celebrated her Irish identity through “a sense of place,” putting images of Ireland inside her Cornell box, and lining it with corks to represent Cork. “It’s a big part of my heritage and I wanted to put in a few things about the geographical places and the traditions,” Kelsey said.

Group exercises included at least one that was somewhat more revelatory. In “Values continuum,” the students would stand with peers who agreed, disagreed or had no opinion about a variety of statements about issues confronting them as adolescents. One was “When I look in the mirror I like what I see.” Blair said she was one of two people to stand at the “disagree” spot.

“My response was, ‘I see myself differently than other people,’” said Haley, who enjoyed the mask making because “it’s easier to express my emotions through the masks and the way we’re doing it, with questions like ‘Who I used to be, what I am now and what I plan to be,’” she said. “It’s tough to do it verbally or you don’t get the same satisfaction. You want to express that you are going to help the world, but it’s easier to show how you’re going to help the world.”

Her Cornell box depicts her connection to steampunk. “I’m in a steampunk group that’s a big part of my life, and steampunk in general,” Blair said. “I really like the way (steampunk) makes old Victorian things look new and innovative.”

Of her mask, Haley said she designed it around cracks in the face.

“I plan to put a paper in the back, to put pictures you can see through the cracks. The cracks represent that I’ve been through a lot and it kind of starts to crack your personality a little but it also forms who you are.”

She planned to employ thread “to show you want to heal, that no matter what you’ve been through you want to make it better.” She added a recycling symbol because she wants to be an environmental scientist, and despite its cracks the mask bears a smile.

“Even when things are tough I want to make the best of it with humor,” Haley said. She would also include a song lyric, “I’m a new soul/I came to this strange world.”

“It relates to what I used to be, because this world is strange,” she said.

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