Dozens of student docents circulate in the Arts @ Large gallery, ready to tell visitors about their new exhibit, while others film and photograph the opening. Videos play, poems are performed, and visitors scribble notes and put on headphones to interact with the anti-bullying artwork.
IMAGINE: Creating School Cultures of Respect and Support displays the work of eighth-graders from several Milwaukee Public Schools. Over two months, the students worked with artists-in-residence at their schools to create multimedia, visual and written art to spark discussion about bullying.
Arts @ Large, a nonprofit organization created in 2001, focuses on bringing arts experiences to MPS students. “The arts are a great tool to allow students to provide their feedback in a safe place,” said Ryan Hurley, program manager for Arts @ Large. And bullying affects students every day.
“When I would sit down with this group of 10 or 15 middle school students and work with them to identify, ‘What are some things you feel like you want to change in your school community?’ across the board, it was like, ‘bullying,’” said Hurley. “It’s something they encounter in the classroom, in the hallways, and they felt like they can make a difference.”
The Center for Applied Theatre’s Mark Weinberg worked with students as an artist-in-residence. He helped them use an interactive technique called Image Theater—which involves silent, whole-body movements—to act out bullying situations from multiple perspectives. The students wrote “six-word memoirs” and then performed them, and they made films of the action to present at IMAGINE.
The six-word phrases—such as, “It’s not cool when it’s you,” “Be kind. We are all interconnected,” and “I will help victims of bullies!”—hang on one wall of the gallery. During the exhibit, visitors can compose and post their own six-word memoirs.
Weinberg said the students displayed a deep understanding about what bullying does to communities.
“It wasn’t really about, ‘Here’s how we deal with bullying,” said Weinberg. “It was, ‘Here’s how we create the larger culture of support, of respect, of mutual understanding and empathy so bullying doesn’t occur.’”
Jennifer Koss, whose Westside Academy homeroom students contributed to the exhibit, said she hopes IMAGINE brings attention to less familiar types of bullying. For example, her students’ film tells a story of how rumors cause conflict.
Koss said arts funding at the school was cut two years ago, so her students’ only opportunity for art activities is in homeroom. Working on this project, the students got to use video equipment, and some began to consider careers in video production.
Jhohaunaus, an eighth-grader at Westside Academy, said he wants to continue making art, about bullying and other subjects, “[as] long as it has something that everyone can relate to and comment on.”
And he hopes the exhibit can change people’s minds.“People will realize bullying is not good, and bystanders will start stepping up and realize they can really help people,” he said.
Although the student work offers alternatives to bullying, according to Hurley, solving bullying problems is not the goal. “We really don’t want to necessarily provide answers, because every situation and school community is unique,” said Hurley. “We want people leaving here with some questions, but not hopeless questions.”
After the exhibit, Arts @ Large will host youth forums, and work with the MPS Violence Prevention Program to help continue the discussion started by IMAGINE.
Weinberg said the effectiveness of the exhibit depends on the students. “Helping them see where there are problems, where there are issues, and where there’s a chance for growth and change and questioning is the role we can play as artists,” he said. “But it always has to start where the students are. The voices that are most important are theirs first.”
IMAGINE runs through March 29 at the Arts @ Large gallery space, 908 S. 5th St.