Why It’s Still So Important For The Future of Our Youth
As young people transition back to school at such a time as the existing global pandemic, there is bountiful room for more discussions on the state of our children, their futures, and how we must craft further avenues for their healthy development. Since March of 2020, the onset of stay-at-home orders, business shutdowns and virtual schooling, systemic disparities throughout communities of color have only amplified. As there is no time as the present, diving deeper into the reservoirs of Black resilience by way of our creativity and originality through art remains an integral topic, often debated.
Arts and arts education are embedded into the ethos of Black legacy. As pivotal figures throughout history have led in defining every type of art form, it is gripping to witness the impacts of their removal and gradual disintegration from communities across the nation.
“What does art do? It keeps you resilient, it keeps you ready for new things, it keeps you optimistic. And you can survive from that,” says painter and educator, Shirley Woodson, who co-founded the Michigan Chapter of the National Conference of Artists (NCA), the longest-running national organization dedicated to nurturing and promoting black visual artists. Woodson was named the Kresge Eminent Artist of 2021.
In this feature, we take a glimpse into the points of view of Detroit’s art community — prominent and emerging artists on a united front to ensure the voice of the arts across elements is heard. Confirmed by all in reflection of their unique experiences and journeys is the significant role arts education has served in shaping their artistic identity and pride.
How To Make An Artist
Nandi Comer is a poet, educator, and organizer. Her poetry collection Tapping Out was awarded the 2020 Society of Midland Authors Award and the 2020 Julie Suk Award.
“For me in particular, when I was a young person growing up in Detroit, I didn’t have words for this feeling, this kind of world that I knew existed. Even though I loved science and math, I still felt like there was something else stirring in me and it was artists who helped name that for me,” Comer says.
Arts education offers kids a chance to destress, learn technical and fine motor skills, expand their creativity and examine their world through a different scope. According to The Art Justice, Black and Latino communities have experienced most of the decline in art education since 1982 at around a 45% decrease in overall courses, availability, etcetera.
Comer says that for her, art education helped name and direct the creative feelings inside her.
“There are kids here who don’t know what it is. They know that they feel different, that they want to do something, but they don’t know what. So their instincts might be seen as destructive or nonsensical,” she says.
“That’s why programs like Citywide Poets are so important. These kids are traveling from all over the city to be with other children who are a part of their experience, or not, and sharing that experience through cathartic verbal art.”
“I think it’s very important to understand the isolation that some of these kids feel, and how art can help them find community,” Comer says.
Bassist, Composer, & Educator Marion Hayden has been performing jazz locally, nationally, and internationally since the age of 15. She received a 2019 Art X Grant and a Creators of Culture Grant for original musical works.
Hayden says she has her culturally-minded parents to thank for her exposure to art early.
If they hadn’t been, she says, the arts curriculum being taught when she was in school would have served as a replacement catalyst for who she is today.
“I was lucky enough to have parents who made sure that we had exposure to all kinds of concerts and artwork and things of that nature when I was a young person. But in addition to that, having arts education in a school setting was really impactful for me,” she says.
Hayden’s parents couldn’t have bought her every musical instrument and set she was interested in. But at school, she could try them out at her leisure and often for free.
“I was able to have cello lessons and bass lessons and choral music in elementary school and dance in middle school. School and church have traditionally been the places where young people learned music, dance, and the performing arts. It’s just highly impactful and crucial that young people have access to the arts through our free public education system,” she says.
Artist Mario Moore holds advanced degrees in illustration and painting from the College for Creative Studies and the Yale School of Art. Some of his work has been acquired by The Detroit Institute of Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem and Princeton University Art Museum.
Moore says arts education had a unique, significant impact on him, since he was raised firsthand by the passion of someone who teaches art. “My mother is an artist and she used to teach. My older sister and I would go with her when she was teaching drawing at adult levels. So I was experiencing the language and techniques of drawing at a very early age. I was also able to sit in on many college art courses at a young age and participate with college students on the assignments,” Moore says.
Mentorship In Arts Education
According to Arts.Gov, only 9.6% of art teachers in the US are Black. Having the art programs in schools is only part of the equation. Every artist and creative I spoke to said they appreciated having learned mentors, in the community and who look like them, who helped walk them through their interests and mold them into masters of their crafts.
“There is a lot of great jazz education that goes on in our formal institutions of learning, but I would say that the companion to that is having some sort of strong community ties that fill in a lot of blanks about what is the actual performance practice. For instance: How do we treat each other as colleagues? How can we take this information and then translate that in an informal presentation at a church or some other setting where people would be just as appreciative but the circumstances of your performance will be less formal?” Hayden says.
She calls these mentors ‘community scholars’ and says that the act of learning from and honoring them keeps the practice of honoring our elders alive.
“Community Scholars haven’t necessarily had academic letters conferred, but they’re people who have really been students of the music for years, their entire lives; practitioners and students. Community scholars really bring an entire body of knowledge and wisdom to the table that is absolutely necessary,” Hayden says.
Nandi Comer says it’s important to have supportive, creative mentors and teachers who understand and want the best for their mentees. You’re less likely, in her experience, to be condescended to or uninspired by a mentor or teacher who understands your life experience.
“The important part of a mentorship is that you have someone who believes that you will eventually become so incredible that you surpass them, right? Not all mentors take that approach. They believe that they are always ahead of their mentees. If you’re lucky enough to find someone who knows that you have the capacity to surpass them, they can also recognize their limitations and know when to say ‘I’ve done all that I can do’ and then they help you identify somebody else in the community that can help support you,” Comer says.
Hopes and Dreams
Caleb Burks is 16 years old and entering his ninth year studying dance at The Zone Dance Center in Southfield. His top three dance forms are ballet, tap, and jazz. He says that art and music classes were always something he looked forward to in school because they were so different from his other classes.
“The arts can be an outlet for you even if it’s not your passion, even if it’s not your main focus. Sometimes it gives you a way to turn something negative into something positive. I think the arts give you a chance to discover a hidden joy or a hidden talent you didn’t know you had. When I’m dancing, I can express myself without having to verbalize. Let others interpret it the way they want, but I know what it means,” Burks says.
Burks can’t get the full experience of all three genres at school, so he substitutes with other programs. Arts education isn’t just about sitting kids down at a desk, handing them a paintbrush and telling them to quietly paint for an hour. It’s about actively passing down the love of art and verifying student’s creative views.
“People need to see credible examples of working artists across the spectrum of creative fields and understand the paths that led to their success so they can chart their own pathways,” says Tracy Reese, founder and director of the Detroit brand Hope For Flowers. She remembers having art classes every week in public school and enjoying additional art classes on Saturdays at places like Your Heritage House.
“By the time I reached high school, I had at least 3 art electives every week. In addition to giving me a greater appreciation of beauty, craft, culture and history in general, the art education I received in Detroit as a child really opened my eyes to the possibility of having a career in a creative profession. I believe that experiencing the arts enhances our view of the world and our place in it and gives us agency to create rich and vibrant lives,” Reese says.
Not only are arts and creativity the engines of invention and science, they are what decorates and animates our public spaces and community discourse. The arts have the power to break cultural barriers of misunderstanding and ignorance; and provide gateways for us to find our voices and share our stories with the world.
Interested in supplementing your kid’s art education? The following organizations
provide free arts programming through partnerships with schools:
• The Carr Center Arts Academy (performing and visual arts)
• The Detroit Jazz Festival Mentors (jazz performance)
• Detroit Youth Volume (music)
• Inside Out Literary Arts (literary & performance)
• Mosaic Youth Theatre (theater)
• The Sphinx Organization (music)
• College for Creative Studies Community Arts Partnerships (art & design)
Outside/Independent of School:
• Hope for Flowers Art Enrichment Program (visual art & sustainability)
• Birmingham-Bloomfield Arts Center (visual arts)
• Detroit Windsor Dance Academy (dance)
• The Zone Dance Center, LLC (dance)