In a year full of unknowns, collaboration found ways to thrive with the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), Portland High School (PHS), and ARRT! (Artists’ Rapid Response Team).
The PMA began the Portland Public Schools Partnerships (PPS/PMA Partnerships) in 2019 to connect with students and educators in the district on a deeper level. In each of these partnerships, we work with individual educators to collaboratively build free-choice, student-driven learning opportunities. Through these partnerships, we learn more about access barriers and opportunities for the PMA to be a better resource for educators throughout Maine. These partnerships within the PPS district help to inform ways that we can expand our capacity for more direct collaboration with more Maine educators.
As part of the PPS/PMA Partnerships, Louis-Pierre Lachapelle and the PMA have been working together since 2019. Last year, PMA worked with his students from Lincoln Middle School to explore the exhibition Carrie Moyer & Sheila Pepe: Tabernacles for Trying Times. Unfortunately, after a couple of sessions with the students, the COVID pandemic hit, and everything was put on hold. We ended the school year not knowing what was going to happen with remote learning but knew that we wanted to continue this partnership into the next school year.
This school year, with Lachapelle’s Advanced Art students at PHS, we wanted to connect students with artists featured in the Untitled 2020: Art from Maine in a ____ Time exhibition. Since all the artists from this exhibition have ties to Maine, we were excited to tap into the network of local artists to work with students. It was important that youth voices be a part of this exhibition in some way, as youth have a lot to express about the year that 2020 was, just as the artists featured in the exhibition do.
We connected with ARRT! from the Untitled 2020 exhibition because we felt students would respond to the themes of social justice and community in their artwork. For the project, students were given the prompt “I care about . . . ” and were tasked to express what they care about visually. ARRT! provided an overview of their artistic and collaborative process, including how they come up with ideas and how they turn those ideas into artworks with powerful statements. As students came up with their own thoughts about what they care about, ARRT! provided feedback on diverse visual representation methods. Feedback included suggestions for materials, techniques, artists to look at, and using different symbols and visual metaphors to communicate ideas.
It was awesome for students to hear a different voice, lens, opinion. What turned out to be fantastic with ARRT! is that it is not an individual; it’s a collective. Within the collective, they all had different ideas. Somehow, these different ideas were all respected. The feedback was awesome because it was not one vision outside of the students’ vision; it was multiple visions and ideas. —Louis-Pierre Lachapelle
Due to the nature of the pandemic, this class was held remotely, which provided both challenges and opportunities. A big part of ARRT!’s process is collaboration, so we found creative ways to integrate that collaborative method. Collaboration happened in the idea generation phase, where students presented sketches and inspiration and then received feedback from ARRT! members and other students. Feedback and discussion became even more important when talking about materials. Due to the nature of remote work, not everyone had access to the first materials they might think of to complete a project. This is where the students’ creativity, ARRT!, and Louis kicked in—to think beyond those first ideas and challenge us all to utilize new materials.
Throughout the partnership, we were all learning from each other. Students taught us things about what they are passionate about and found unique ways to communicate those ideas visually. ARRT! offered new ways to look at themes and topics and suggested a wide array of materials to try, depending on the student’s goal for their piece. There was this intergenerational feel to the whole experience that was unique to the partnership—high school artists in conversation with artists of a different generation. Learning and teaching happened from all sides and with everyone involved.
Thinking more broadly about the learning that occurred, it was important to Lachapelle to engage students with professional artists through this type of partnership. He wanted to connect them with professional artists within the Maine arts community. The bonus with ARRT! is that they are a group of individual artists operating as a collective. Having multiple voices and perspectives offers many ways to see and understand an idea. Students benefited from having many ideas and directions to choose from, and it was powerful to demonstrate that there is no right way to execute an artwork.
For the students, it is so cool to experience something outside the building. Not just my voice. Hearing from other people. Seeing different kinds of painting and materials. Anything that is exposing them to the professional art world. —Louis-Pierre Lachapelle
Another way we introduced students to the professional art world was through a discussion of where they would like to display their final artwork. Many students were unsure of where their final pieces might land, but we talked about the importance of sharing their artwork with others. Art is a powerful vehicle for sharing their voices and ideas with a broader audience. No matter what setting their final pieces might land in, they need to continue to think about the audience and showing their artwork.
It was interesting that none of the students thought of displaying their final artwork in the museum setting. This finding also ties to a conversation that we have had throughout this partnership—why does it appear that the museum is only for professional artists? The hope is that through partnerships like this, PMA and educators can break down that notion and help emerging artists see themselves represented in the museum. The museum could be a space where younger generations of artists could exhibit their ideas and artwork, thus inspiring others and sharing their voices with the larger community.
Partnerships between museums and educators are critical for envisioning and building the future of art education. Not only do these partnerships engage students in thinking more about the professional art world and their place within it, but they also help us all to build better bridges between museums, schools, and communities. For Lachapelle students, this collaborative partnership helped them to “realize there are multiple layers to a question, to a topic, which is valid not just for art, but also for life.” When partnerships exist at a deeper level, trust can be formed, and we can all examine a topic in fuller detail. Through these partnerships, we can take a topic and look at it from all angles, grappling with complex ideas. We hope that the PMA can play a key role in connecting communities for future partnerships, similar to what occurred for this collaboration between Portland High School and ARRT!.
Collaboration and Connecting in the Year of the Pandemic (Some of the ARRTists Share Their Thoughts)
At the completion of this project, several of us took time to share feedback about successes and outcomes. We all agreed that remote learning created challenges in both the process for students, such as working with supplies and materials (some students were not physically present in the classroom) and communication—the time constraints and dialogue barriers of zoom meetings for a 20-plus member group.
There were also unexpected rewards. “One of the best things to come out of this work with the PHS class is to work as a team, an expert panel, seeing how much we have to offer the students. We have worked together for years, but not in this way, so it is a new appreciation of each other and of ARRT! collaboration.” —Natasha Mayers, ARRT! member
The students were tasked to address the prompt, “What do you care about?” Their passion for issues was impressive, but translating those into a creative expression more challenging.
An observation, “I am now realizing that they need more parameters. Remote learning has made this also challenging with materials, as you can imagine,” was expressed by the instructor, Louis-Pierre Lachapelle.
Anita Clearfield, one of the ARRT!ists, commented:
I’ve seen that for this age group to reveal oneself and to pick something without being directed, is hard enough! They obviously have a lot of technical art-making skills, but that personal passion search is much harder. And even more difficult seems to be to go all-out on it—not just name something with an abstract term, but to let yourself go to explore it. In retrospect, our modeling of how we do those drill-down searches is different from banner-making collaboration, but resonates in the way we look at an idea for a banner or a banner in progress and riff on ideas that would make it better. I think in the future I’d want to see a clearer idea of the end product—does it have to convince someone of something (like our banners) or does it express the artist’s passion? (Our best banners, of course, do both!) But I think the students and artists would benefit from clear goals. Art is about taking an initial idea and TRANSFORMING it. I feel like they think their projects have to “illustrate” their passion, instead of taking one aspect and wormholing into it.
We all agreed that setting clear expectations was important to the outcome, but the connection between young students and practicing artists had positive results despite the challenges.
Taking us along on this creative journey has renewed my faith in the power of the arts, despite the isolation of this pandemic. This experience has made me realize how crucial our personal interactions are for creative human development. I applaud your (Mr. L.P.) hard work in valuing the students’ efforts, thoughts, concerns, and ideas. —Christine Higgins, ARRT! member
Meghan Quigley Graham is Learning & Teaching Specialist at the Portland Museum of Art and Louis-Pierre Lachapelle is an Art Teacher at Portland High School.
Image at top: Grace, Portland High School Advanced Art student, acrylic, 2021.