It was to be the twentieth year—the twentieth year of having visual artists, poets, dancers, jugglers, performers, and other community members working in collaboration across all content areas to celebrate the arts at Leavitt Area High School. Many hours were spent emailing and creating announcements to solicit names from staff members of preferred artists, their curriculum content connections, and general themes. Then came the endless hours actually calling and emailing artists to participate, explaining the importance of Arts Gala to our rural Western Maine school—that it was often the only visual and performing arts experience many of our students would have—and what it would mean for the selected artist to attend, and finally sending contracts and tax forms. Leavitt, once a private school but now public, holds tightly to many traditions, ideals, annual festivals, and incorporation of community in and outside of the classroom.
In March of 2020, the high school halls held an installation-in-progress by students of their work hung on walls and scattered tables with various 3D wonders. Other students had marked their preferred spot for their artwork displays with swatches of masking tape, their name neatly printed so others would know to keep looking for another location. It had become tradition to have students learn how to do their own matting, tagging, and hanging of their own artworks, a minimum of five per student, and to have the entire first floor of the high school dedicated to student artwork displays. Every hallway, alcove, and lobby would have coveted spots, the upperclassmen in advanced classes getting first pick, followed by foundations courses.
Then there were the artists. The nine visiting artists were booked to start working the following week.
And then it all simply wasn’t. Leavitt’s arts teachers had to cancel as COVID restrictions and orders to go home were issued on 13 March 2020. It meant removing student displays. It meant learning who owned the borrowed tables and stools that students begged, borrowed, and creatively loaned to hold their projects. Those same surfaces now needed to be returned and students were not allowed in the building to help identify who the owners happened to be. It meant taking down those precious installations, as well as reaching out to postpone and eventually cancel all the artists who were counting on the work of partnering with our school.
Arts Gala has been an annual tradition in which students explore the different opportunities that are available in the arts, how the arts are vital careers, and also what it means to be creative, spontaneous, and create vital connections to the arts and their communities. The faculty is encouraged to request topics or themes that would connect to their class’s curriculum. This has built the network of collaborating artists who have been asked to visit and participate. Twenty years of tradition had built relationships with artists throughout Maine, and some even braved traveling from other parts of New England to participate in a partnership with the small group of arts teachers in rural Turner, Maine.
It meant celebrating the arts, but also provided opportunities for the students and community to participate and build value in the importance of arts for all students.
And then it simply was not there. That absence paved the way for a lack of agency for both staff and students alike. There wasn’t a way to showcase everyone’s hard work without an art show. The lack of visibility of the arts in other contexts reinforced the drive to do more with less time while the arts sat on the sidelines. It created a dark time for the arts in a school in which its art faculty had dedicated years to networking and relationship retention. An annual Art Gala evening for our school averaged at least two thousand visitors, but with COVID the greater community was not able to visit to see what was happening within the school. The relationship with artists that had been fostered for two decades was left in limbo, and students were not receiving external recognition of their overall time and efforts from the community and their school, as the ability to present and perform was being severely restricted beyond their control.
The absence was marked and in stark contrast to the 2022 Leavitt Arts Gala Celebration. In March 2022, Leavitt Area High School officially celebrated its twentieth Arts Gala by hosting eight visiting artists who worked with twenty-seven teachers and impacted students in ninety-four classes with the theme of “identity and creating connections.” This opportunity was the first one that allowed multiple visitors back into the building and into classrooms.
Kyle Battle, formerly of the Telling Room, was described by students as “sassy, personable, and so interactive it didn’t feel like learning,” and taught students how to tell their own story through creative writing. Namory Keita, a Master Village Drummer from Guinea in West Africa, taught students how to communicate through music while also telling of his journey of becoming a drummer in his family and what it meant to his village. A student reflected: “I enjoyed how he shows his passion with music and his past and where he came from through a musical way.” Robert Sylvain brought Acadian culture alive with stories, singing, and learning to play the spoons, and students discovered their own personal connections to Acadian culture by noticing patterns in the music and stories their own families have shared. In other classrooms, published illustrator Averil Burner taught students character development that later led to student illustrations in the local public library. Students reflected that her sessions “taught how art can be a career,” and being able to “have another point of view” helped them think outside their comfort zone. Ian Ramsey, described as “inspiring and personable,” worked with students on a growth mindset, while Leeland Faulkner was described as “amazing and got everyone involved.” Steve Corning was “entertaining and engaged [students] by describing his process, time, and effort to his craft,” while Sasha Richardson engaged students with movement in acting, juggling, and dancing. The presence of the arts was felt throughout the building and in the community. Students were actively engaged in understanding their own identity and exploring the importance of making connections for what it means to be human.
In March 2022 we were not able to bring back the performance aspect. 2023 will welcome artists to participate in classrooms for four days and on the fifth there will be two assemblies that allow the entire student body to attend an arts performance. In the past, three of the attending performance-based artists have been asked to showcase their talents and activities they did in their workshops with students, demonstrating the learning that took place that week, and the community will be welcomed to experience and celebrate the arts along with the student body.
The opportunity for students to explore the arts and provide tangible and meaningful opportunities for arts-based learning is essential for every student at Leavitt. Though COVID forced an absence, Leavitt will continue to celebrate, showcase, and actively engage in creating opportunities for artists to work with all students and in every context, as the presence of arts matters to us all.
Iva Damon is in her fourteenth year of teaching high school visual arts in Maine. The 2022 High School Art Teacher of the Year and Program Leader for MAEPL, the Maine Art Education Partners in Leadership, an association that works to develop and promote high-quality arts education for all throughout Maine. While not in the classroom, Iva enjoys plein air painting in Western and Northern Maine.
Image at top: Namory Keita with students (photo: Martha Piscuskis).