March 5, 2013 10:31:01 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Two years ago, none of the students in Sarah Oswalt's Visual Arts class could have imagined having a gallery opening for their work. Most of them were sure they had no artistic talent at all. But the class is a required part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma curriculum, meaning the 11 students had to at least give art a chance, even if they never fully embraced it.
Monday afternoon, the Columbus High School seniors were at the Rosenzweig Arts Center in downtown Columbus, unpacking sculptures from boxes, hanging paintings and looking back wistfully on a class many said was their most intimidating but ultimately became their favorite.
Kristina Patel, 18, arranged plaster sculptures of hands and river rocks -- all decorated with intricate designs patterned after the temporary henna tattoos Indian women adorn themselves with during special occasions.
The art project gave her the chance to open a dialogue with her classmates about the Hindu religion that guides every decision she makes, she said. It's hard for her to find ways in an American high school to celebrate her culture, but through art, she found an outlet for expression.
In doing so, she met one of the most central goals of the IB program -- promoting international understanding through academic experience.
She didn't think she would be good at art, but she discovered that not only did she have a natural talent, but art offered a relief from the stress of the rigorous IB curriculum.
'AP on steroids'
The program, which has been described by some students as "AP on steroids," carries a heavy course load of English, History of the Americas, Visual Arts and Theory of Knowledge. Students must also choose between Spanish or French, biology or chemistry, and mathematics or mathematical studies. In order to earn an IB diploma, students meet numerous requirements including interviews, extensive research papers and a complex written exam.
This week, the students are fulfilling one of their final requirements to pass the Visual Arts component -- they must show their work publicly. Thursday night, they will get their chance. They will hold an opening reception at 5:30 p.m. for their month-long gallery show at the RAC.
Though many of the students are nervous, Oswalt said it's important for them to have the chance to share their pride in their work and the journey they have undergone.
"It ties together education and the community," Oswalt said. "It gives a deeper meaning than creating art in the classroom for teachers. Here, they are actually showing it to the public and going through the process of hanging it and advertising."
The students began preparing for this moment two years ago, when they entered Oswalt's class. In the beginning, they studied fundamentals and basic techniques, but as they began creating their own art, they began redesigning their ideas of who they are and what they are capable of achieving.
Enrique Hackler, 17, started out emulating artists he liked, but in time, he found his own style, he said, as he watched Oswalt hang one of his three-dimensional photographs.
He learned life lessons as well, chiefly, "Don't procrastinate." And that lesson spilled over into his other classes. Now, he thinks he would like to minor in art in college.
Even hardcore math lovers found something of use in the class. Wen Hua Chen, 18, plans to attend Mississippi State University to study finance, and he dreams of making it to Wall Street, where he will work as a financial advisor or banker.
But as he looked over his brightly-colored, geometry-inspired paintings, he reflected on the ways Visual Arts has changed his thinking.
He points to one painting with rough outlines and compares it to a later work which features neater edges and a more sophisticated design.
The class taught him to be more organized, he said, and he believes that will be useful no matter what path he chooses. Equally beneficial, he said, are the communication skills he gained from working with his peers.
Thursday night's reception will be the first time he has ever shown his work publicly, but he said he isn't nervous because former IB students have been generous with sage advice.
"They said, 'Don't be nervous,'" he said. "'All you've got to do is be yourself and talk about your project and what inspired you.'"
For some, like 18-year-old Breanna Gardner, that's an easy question -- she was inspired by her passions. A recent collage shows pasted images of purses, shoes, puppies and sunglasses.
Splatter and pour
In the beginning, she wasn't sure who she was, but she was pretty sure she wasn't an artist, she said. But along the way, she developed an interest in splatter and pouring effects. Gradually, her personality began to shine through.
"A lot of my work represents who I am," she said, stepping back to survey her display. "I like to have fun, and I like girly stuff."
But though she has enjoyed the class, she's not sure how to incorporate it into her future career plans. She wants to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. to study biology. Eventually, she hopes to become a dentist.
Visual Arts might have been her hardest class, but it was also the most fun, she said.
At the top of her exhibit, a black board is emblazoned with the word, "Dare," and features three black TOMS shoes and one white, paint-splattered shoe insert facing the opposite direction.
"It represents 'Dare to be different,'" she said. "Be yourself. Be different. Don't let other people determine who you are."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.