Feathers/Wings

IMG_8703We started them on the first day of school, the day when all students new to ACMA came to campus a day before returning students. After a welcome in the auditorium students fanned out across campus in groups, visiting the library, participating in some theatre games, and making art. That art was simple in design, but big in idea. Feathers.

Each student got to choose a bright cardstock strip to draw or write on any way they thought represented them. Faces, quotations, animals, the choices were as different as each individual student. Next, they cut these into the shapes of a feathers, and by the end of the day hundreds were piled on the art studio table.

IMG_8704Over the next couple of weeks we added to the pile of feathers. Staff took turns making their own during our preservice week, parents got to make feathers at my first principal’s coffee, and our intrepid assistant principal set up a table for returning students to make their own at lunch. The feathers filled a wicker basket to overflowing, and then…

On the wall outside my office at the front of the school those feathers became wings. On a rich blue background two swooping collections of feathers reached toward the butchers paper clouds. On those clouds, drifting about the rainbow wings, were written: “Attitude determines altitude” and “Commit to soar, ACMA.”

IMG_8701We figured it would be a nice photo opportunity for any souls willing to stand in front and make the wings their own. It was also a metaphor that captures at least a bit of who we are as a school.

Individually we are creative, divergent, and wildly individualistic. Some of us draw, some of us write, some of us express ourselves in music and movement. Those feathers showed all the colors of our rainbow, gave each person their own personal space to create, and the freedom to be themselves. And…

Together those individual feathers coalesced and created something magical and greater than any one individual. Alone we are feathers; together we are wings.

So too at our little art school. The painter, the poet, the percussionist; the dancer, the director, the dreamer; each left to our own devices can create something marvelous and individual, but how much more when the sculptor and the screenwriter, the filmmaker and the photographer, the actor and the artist support each other?

Art unifies us. Art lifts us up. Art, and each other, helps us soar.

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A Luxurious Profusion of Art

I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I write a bit, and like to. Occasionally I’ll scribble something resembling a cartoon; my kids tell me they can always recognize a sketch as mine when a pirate or a cat shows up on a note or inside a greeting card. It makes me happy to see my daughter’s own cartoon cats beating mine into Grandma’s birthday card (cats are easy and fill up the space, she explains to me, my rationale as well, though I haven’t yet admitted that to her).

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My wife is the real artist, a painter whose time in art school showed that she could also sculpt, make books, and create with wire. At one point a life sized model of me made from metal mesh knelt on the balcony of our apartment in Oakland. What the neighbors must have thought.

I have a good friend who is a classical guitarist, and while I’ve never learned an instrument myself, I recognize his playing as magical. That said, I feel my heart swell when I listen to my daughter practicing the piano at home, and the other night, long after sensible parents had put their kids to bed, I’ll confess to being delighted when I heard her quietly plucking La Vie en Rose on the ukulele.

This appreciation extends to every live performance I’ve ever seen in the theater. The last time I acted on stage I was in the third grade, a weasel in a school production of Wind in the Willows. It was the 1970s and costumes were very homemade. My tail, which I remember being as round as a mason jar and longer than my leg, literally knocked over scenery during the weasel dance in Toad Hall. I never acted again.

But, “O for a muse of fire…” how I wish I could memorize lines, or play the violin, or knock out Misty on the piano. To be able to paint an autumn field alla prima, or throw a pot on the wheel, or tap dance… these are skills that leave me in wonder.

I remember a time, now decades ago, going in to the Hipbone Studio in Portland with my wife for an evening of life drawing. Her sketches in charcoal on newsprint looked like something by Raphael; thirty minutes in I’d resorted to caricaturing my fellow artists.

And what does this long reflection (confession?) on my own artistic shortcomings have to do with anything? I suppose some of it is just a love or words. As Stephen Fry wrote:

While I am fond of the condensed and economical use of [words] in poetry, in song lyrics, in Twitter, in good journalism, and smart advertising, I love the luxuriant profusion and mad scatter of them too.”

So as someone who appreciates art, and art of all kinds, and who has the pleasure of earning a living by being the principal of an art school, I relish the chance to madly scatter a few words of praise and wonder at the arts and artists I spend time with every day.

This extends beyond the gallery or performance hall, and peeks behind the curtain or glossy cover of the literary magazine.

Beyond the swell of inspiration that comes from watching performances and seeing finished work on display, there is something fundamentally profound in seeing the process of artists creating.

The hours a filmmaker invests setting up shots, coaching actors, editing and adding music; the days a sculptor devotes before a piece goes into the kiln; the endless rehearsals a jazz musician muscles through to make a piece feel easy to the audience; this making of art is, as often, where the true magic lies.

Watching the sawing, hammering, and painting of sets before the play opens, or listening as the costume designers talk options with their director, these are the moments when art is alive.

Poets mulling over words, short story writers wrestling with their characters, playwrights polishing dialogue, this is art.

Choirs harmonizing, orchestras coming together to bring a score to life, the work it takes for large groups like this to make music together is the challenge of art that brings with it the possibility of bringing us closer together.

Dancers, dedicated beyond belief, pushing themselves mentally and physically to make their art appear effortless to an audience who doesn’t see the hours in the studio, the starts and stops, the grinding work they throw themselves into in the collective embrace of music and marley.

And knowing I can’t dance, or play the cello, or step into the darkroom with a roll of film and come out with a work of art, I do my best to be the most appreciative audience I can be.

I applaud ferociously. I celebrate unceasingly. I post images of student art on Instagram, video clips of choir on Facebook, and posters of the upcoming shows on Twitter.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 9.07.18 AMI do my best to remember what it was like when I was a youngster and my dad taught me how to take photographs. He was patient, methodical, and caring. My wonder at seeing the world through a viewfinder, just as my dad did, is something I see in the many young photographers on campus. And I think about what it was like to be young and artistic and have an adult believe in me and want me to succeed.

I aspire to be that adult, one of many adults at our school with that caring and belief, who strives to be that supportive force for all students.

Art transforms the world. Making art transforms the artist.

Thank heaven for places like ACMA, where art and artists are given the support and opportunity to transform us all.

Found

We tried something different at our last staff meeting. After spending some time analyzing data and engaging in a rousing discussion of student academic success and the results from our student wellness survey we shifted gears and did a little crafting. Specifically, every staff member got a sheet of paper with a couple of pictures copied onto it and together we laughed as we helped each other fold (and fold and fold and cut and fold) those pieces of paper into miniature books.

IMG_8460The blank pages inside the books, I explained, were for the staff members to fill out as we went on a little walking tour of campus. Ours is a school built in 1949, added onto in the 1950s, and one that made a life changing transformation into an arts academy just over twenty years ago. Some of our staff have been here since almost the beginning (of the art school, not the 1949 elementary), and the stories they have to tell are as rich as they are inspiring. Over the course of the year we’re celebrating those stories and the people and events that form the history of our little school.

Part of that celebration is listening, engaging with the past, and making connections to our present and our future. One joy of the process is the parade of surprises that surface with a little digging: there was once a large greenhouse on campus, the reason a roll of film is painted above the classroom near the front door is because it once was the filmmaking room, the fact that an English classroom used to be the library and a history room was once the staff lounge (and that a couch from that lounge is now a prop in our theater).

So as we left the library, which in the 1950s was the assembly room and later became the gym, tiny blank books in hand, I asked the teaches if on those empty pages they would write, draw, or capture in whatever way they wanted some of what they were seeing and hearing on our campus walkabout. Their individual perspectives on our school matter, I told them, and using this little rectangle of paper to record them could provide something fun for others too. What if, I asked, when they were done, they scattered their ACMA history books across campus for students to find?

IMG_8462So we walked.

Our first stop was the Quonset Hut where our students now eat lunch. There, amongst the cafeteria tables, one of our most veteran teachers pointed to the high arched ceiling and brought everyone’s attention to the black paint rising up the walls. “From there back,” he said, “was the stage…” and then he began describing the wild creativity, born of the necessity of not having a world class theater, that had filled the space. He talked about the production that included a swimming pool, the dance numbers, the music, and the staging of Alice in Wonderland that knew it was the last ever in the space and cut holes in the makeshift stage for trap doors and other surprises. “We were creative,” he explained, “because we had to be.”

The true words of an artist.

IMG_8466From there we walked north to the “new edition” of 1950 and a math classroom that housed one of the many Mona Lisas of ACMA. Anyone walking our halls today notices variations on DaVinci’s theme: Mona Lisa in flannel, Mona Lisa as a dog etc. etc. Most are painted directly on the plaster and easy for anyone to see, but the math teacher who calls this room home had mentioned to me that he’d found the newspaper Mona Lisa that fell off the wall a few years ago and given her a home in his room. Pausing to look at her, our staff took time to talk about the magic of student art filling our halls. From the paintings and tiles to the giant salmon above the western doorway and the masks above the Tom Marsh Gallery, student work is a part of who we are as a school. Our next task, as we walked south toward the main office, was to slow down (a tough thing for a teacher in September) and really notice what we were seeing. That, and jot in our books.

We filed down the hallway and toward the corner where we stopped next to talk about another kind of art …the professional type. I’ll save details of this for a future post, but a fact that I went more than a year before knowing was that hanging alongside some of our student artwork is the work of well known artists from the Pacific Northwest. The smiles in the eyes of our staff as one of our art teachers described our “collection” were inspiring.

IMG_8461We ended back in the library (née assembly room, née gym) where adults who knew a little more about their school scribbled and sketched in the books they’d made, books that were a bit of them and bit of ACMA, presents of the past for students of our present.

The next morning, arriving to school early, I spotted a few of those books in hallway. By lunch I’d seen more in the classrooms I visited throughout the morning. Will they get students wondering? Will they prompt someone to ask a question about our school or inspire curiosity about our campus?

Whatever the result, the process of reflecting on our shared history and taking time to be creative together made for a fantastic end to a meeting that was all about understanding our students and helping them succeed. Truth be told, I believe that our walk has the potential to help make our school a better place for kids (and adults too). Data is certainly a way to understand our schools and ourselves, but so too are stories.

I love the creativity I saw in my staff, the willingness to get up out of their chairs and do something unusual, and the gift they were willing to create for the kids to discover.

Bird is the Word: Three Stories

I’m sometimes asked what it’s like to be the principal of an art school. With just over 700 students grades six through twelve, an unusual age spread, focused on visual and performing arts, my school is proudly quirky, unapologetically iconoclastic, and as wildly creative as it is kind. Our staff shirts this year are tie dye. But that doesn’t quite catch all of who we are.

IMG_6890So I offer three snapshots of our school spirit, tiles in the mosaic of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Hardly comprehensive, these examples from a busy August simply show a sample of who we are, or aspire to be.

ACMA has long had a tradition of silly yearbooks photos. It could be argued that these have always been a part of our school; look back at the first yearbook and you’ll see Faye Dunaway, Groucho Marx, and Obi Wan Kenobi alongside the students. By 1994-1995 students had begun to add props to their yearbook photos, hats, guitars, and stuffed animals. Fast forward to the early 2000s and the staff are in on the goofiness.

Last year saw a puppy make his way into a yearbook photo. Some students came with masks, hats, and one in a banana suit. For kids new to ACMA silly yearbook photos, the final station of our registration day, are an introduction into the playful spirit of our school. They get their official ID picture, formal, with a smile, and then are invited to have fun. Work, then play. For returning students this is an opportunity to plan ahead and express themselves in a way that is “so very ACMA.”

So this year, as I was walking through the blue box theater where they were taking photos, I heard a snippet of dialogue that I’m not sure would ever be uttered anywhere other than our little school. Bending over the display screen, the photographer and a student were reviewing a proof and the photographer said: “You look fabulous in this first photo, but the bird is looking away.”

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So very ACMA.

The next week our teachers returned to campus, and in the midst of staff meetings and preparing for back to school night, new student day, and the first day of school, a group of about a dozen of my performing arts teachers gathered in the library to talk about a big idea. Our PTO had suggested that in lieu of an auction, this year we might entertain the notion of a celebration of the arts, a Cabaret Night that would see performances from across the creative continuum, an evening where parents, patrons, and families could come and enjoy what ACMA is all about. It was a kernel of possibility that these teachers decided to embrace.

Talk ranged from how we could select the best of the best performances for the night, integrate new work, and invite talented student performers to show off the art that matters so much to them. It was what I expected the conversation might look like, talented artists chatting about showcasing student work. And then…

Then something shifted. One teacher brought up and idea about how we might fill the foyer with visual art, integrating photography, animation, and spoken word into the event. Another suggested a plan for providing multiple performance venues. A third asked about using the main building for some part of the night, making part of Cabaret Night a farewell to the CE Mason building that has served as home to students for almost 70 years. Ideas exploded all around the table. Dinner? Dessert? MCs? What about alumni?

Conversations blossomed about former students and what they were doing in the world of art and performance. Would any be interested in performing with our students? The possibilities…

One night turned into two. How could we invite more families to come to experience our art? What kind of projects could we collaborate on between departments: film, dance, music… if we projected photography and had our jazz band… how about some poetry paired with… would the choir want to… could we get sculpture students and the orchestra to…

I left dizzy with the possibilities. I’d seen each of these teachers individually preparing and producing opportunities for students to shine, and I’d seen a few collaborate with other departments, but in a passionate hour on the week before school began I witnessed the sheer power of art and imagination, in service to students, on a level that is hard to capture in words.

IMG_7358I know that this spring the fruits of that conversation and the hard work that will follow this genesis of ideas will be marvelous (mark your calendars for May 17th and 18th), and as inspiring was to be a fly on the wall while these amazing artists and educators talked about taking chances, supporting students, and embracing the challenge of creativity on an epic scale.

On a more modest, but no less inspiring scale, a student came up to me at Back to School Night almost in tears. She’d lost $40 in the course of picking up her schedule (and ice cream cone from our PTO for our annual ice cream social) and asked if anyone had turned it in. They hadn’t, and it broke my heart to tell her so. She left, retracing her steps back to Fred Meyer where she’d been before walking to campus.

My mingling during the ice cream social brought me to the family of an incoming sixth grader, who shook my hand, remembering my name from our registration day, and let me know that he and his mom had found $40 that he wanted to hand in to lost and found. “They might really need it,” he said. I knew he was right.

So I asked the student if he wanted to be the one to give the money back to the student who’d lost it, and he smilingly agreed. We walked into the building in search of the upperclassmen who had lost the $40. We found her friend, who called her at the store. Then the friend turned to the 6th grader and handed him the phone. He introduced himself, listened, and smiled. Handing the phone back, he looked at me and said: “She wants to give me a hug!”

The creativity of birds, the passion of artists, and the kindness of family, these are who we are at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy …wrapped in a tie dye t-shirt.

Thoughtful Destruction

“Masters, be kind to the old house that must fall”
-Julia Randall

At the end of the road is a sparkling new building, good for students, a haven for learning, modern, marvelous, and built to be an art school. That road, however, is anything but smooth.

Winding, filled with potential potholes, and paved over sacred ground, the path to progress promises to try our souls.

In a little more than a year our current campus will swell with the sound of hammering, bulldozers, and a great moving of earth. Construction fencing will circle our school, and looking down at the commotion within those plywood and chain link walls, the birds that fly overhead will witness the destruction of our old and wonderful building and the construction of something new.

IMG_7105Our current home, formally CE Mason Elementary School and home to ACMA for the past quarter century, is covered with meaningful student art, regarded with well deserved affection, and packed with more vivid memories than a Terrence Malick film.

This June, as the last summer we’ll spend in this building arrives, feels like a time of calm before the emotional storm, a chance to take a deep breath before piloting this splendid old ship into the dock for the last time.

As we do, we’re in the opening stages of planning the new building. Our architects are presenting ideas to the staff, and meeting with teachers from programs in need of special infrastructure (where to put the kiln, what kind of acoustics we need in the recording studio, what we mean by a 21st century darkroom). Our Urban Design students have taken a field trip to the architects’ office, where they presented their own ideas about what our school needs. In a comic aside, I asked at our last meeting: “Did they include the place to stable the therapy llama?” and for a few seconds everyone at the table paused, considering that that might be something our ACMA students would suggest. It was marvelous.

And as the architects are capturing on paper as much creative vision as the budget will allow, we as a school community are doing our best to wrap our heads around the idea that in just over a year CE Mason will be gone.

IMG_3784If our building was only a building, that wouldn’t feel so wrenching, but CE Mason Elementary, home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, is more than a building; it’s home.

This building has seen decades of students pass through its doors, nervous sixth graders, confident graduates, extroverts, introverts, and an assortment of artists and those willing to see life artistically.

…and art students did to CE Mason what art students do: they filled it with art.

Art appears everywhere in our current building. Student murals from the twenty-six years ACMA has been in existence fill our hallways, peek around corners, and smile down on the students as they walk to classes.

IMG_6246Mona Lisa, in full ‘90s grunge uniform of flannel shirt and backward baseball cap, smiles enigmatically toward the north. A canine Mona Lisa looks south, her muzzle a doggy smile. And hidden in plain sight, a collection of images tucked brilliantly in a complicated corner near the main office provides a fantastic version of Da Vinci’s most famous portrait, a reminder that art can be as playful as it is refined, as clear as it is heartfelt.

Contemporary student art hangs alongside the installations from years past. Paintings, drawings, sculptures in wire and clay all turn our hallways into a living gallery. Without lockers interrupting sightlines, it’s possible to stroll from the library to the math classrooms on the far end of the building and see canvasses hung at eye level, untouched but never unappreciated, every day. It is astounding.

In a little more than a year, it will be gone.

And yet…

…it won’t.

IMG_3856You’ll hear some artists talk about the impermanence of art, Picasso’s line: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” and such, but truth be told, even if we admit that the comfort is cold. The images that fill ACMA’s hallways, whether they’ve been there for five years, ten, or twenty, are part of our collective soul, and aren’t easy to lose.

But, painted on sixty year old plaster, the murals can’t be cut out or peeled off. While we’ll be able to save some three dimensional pieces, we’ve got to be more creative about the others. More than a year out, we’re already working on it.

We know that how we approach this opportunity will help define us …and believe in the idea of thoughtful destruction.

So, we will save what we can, we will capture what we can’t in creative ways (film, high resolution photographs that we can enlarge and display, and a couple of other creative solutions) that allow it to live on, and we will celebrate everything.

IMG_7350We will remember what James Baldwin said of life and art: “Nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.”
And we will be those witnesses to our past, active participants in our present, and creators of our future. We will celebrate the history of ACMA’s first home and build on the creative spirit that defines our school as we continue to create.

I’ve said before that ACMA could be ACMA in a circus tent. We are the people who fill our school, the magic of creativity, and the commitment to making art. More than any building or campus, ACMA is a state of mind. So over the course of the next school year we will mourn, make art, move forward together, embracing the process with the hearts of artists.

Strange

There is a park that is known
For the face it attracts
Colorful people whose hair
On one side is swept back
The smile on their faces
It speaks of profound inner peace
Ask where they’re going
They’ll tell you nowhere
They’ve taken a lifetime lease
On Paisley Park

-Prince, Paisley Park

While we don’t have a school fight song at ACMA, I like to think that if we did it would be Prince’s “Paisley Park.” Artistic, independent, and confessedly quirky, students and staff at our little art school recognize the importance of seeing the world through the kaleidoscopic eyes of an artist. We paint, sculpt, act, and dance. We make music and make films. We write poetry and write scripts. We write the possibilities of our own futures.

To some, this looks strange.

But while the workaday world might look twice at what some of us wear, the color of our hair, or the glitter on our faces, ACMA’s colorful people are about more than just appearances. Our artistic souls run deep, and our capacity for seeing life in a way that might make a difference is profound.

If we were a superhero, we’d be Dr. Strange.

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…because ACMA is a place for magic. It is a world of wonder and wild creativity. Faced with challenges, artistic, academic, or social, our students respond cleverly, compassionately, and creatively. Where there isn’t yet an answer, our students are ready to go about making their own.

A student once told me: “Nobody’s weird here at ACMA, because everyone’s weird here at ACMA.” She meant this in a good way.

Diverse interests, diverse backgrounds, diverse attitudes all come together at our school under the transformative and unifying power of art. Painters, poets, photographers; dancing, drawing, and daring to do great things, it’s not strange to see students from one artistic pathway supporting peers from another, and even trying their hand in different medium as well. Our actors write, our musicians draw, every one of our sixth graders has a chance to dance.

Strange? Maybe. Or maybe strange is just a point of view.

ACMA contains a world not everyone sees, not technical, not linear, not gritty or cosmic, but something else, something unique.

It’s here that…

…plush ears, horns, and tails are a regular part of what students wear every day

…Mona Lisa is painted on our hallway walls, as a dog, a grunge rocker, and a surprising collage you have to look at twice to see her

…we have Back to School Night before the first day of classes

…students and staff pose for silly photos in the yearbook

…Rojo the therapy llama is a part of our school family

…our athletic complex is a single basketball hoop at a ¾ angle in the courtyard

…we don’t have a school mascot

…our hallways are a living gallery, filled with contemporary student art, not hidden behind glass

…LGBTQ is celebrated, not just accepted

…our summer theater program mounts a full scale musical in just a month

…our students doodle

…it’s not unusual to see a student on stilts, or a student in a top hat, or a staff member in a kilt

…tie-dye is the unofficial school color

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 11.40.36 AM…we have students who take math up through AP Calculus

…Halloween is a national holiday

…a giant painting of David Bowie hangs outside the main office

…staff compete in a giant Rock-Paper-Scissors competition

…we laugh a lot, we cry easily, and we surprise some who don’t know us with our strength

…we have a “Bat Cave”

…we love applause, we embrace creativity, and we care for each other

ACMA is a special place, and for those of us who get to spend time here every day, a transformational one. It’s here that we learn, create, a embrace being a little different.

To quote an unconventional superhero: “If you ask me, it’d be an awfully boring life if nothing was ever weird. It’s the weird ones who change the world.”

Striking the Set

This summer, before classes began at ACMA, I watched students who were part of a summer theater program building sets for the full musical being staged in the performing arts center. Back in August I described it as:

Over my first weeks on the job I watched them move from planning to preparation to putting nails into boards. The ideas that they’d bandied about at the start of July manifested themselves in a nearly completed set within a few weeks, a set that was ready for actors to inhabit by August. Bit by bit they built the world on which the action of the production would take place. Their mindful work literally set the stage for the great things to come.”

techsI hoped then that my work as a principal might parallel theirs, these smiling students filled with ideas, hope, and energy.

Now, it’s June. The show has opened, had a terrific run, and over the next few weeks we will take our final bows of 2017-2018, pull the curtains, and strike the set.

To stretch this metaphor, it’s been a production of action and adventure, comedy, drama, improv and well rehearsed dialogue. Along the way many of us have flubbed a few lines, dropped a prop or two, and adapted as the reality of performing live provided us with surprises. We nailed some scenes too. We’ve grown into our characters, learned the give and take of actors sharing a stage, and done our best to practice that old theatrical idea of answering “yes …and” whenever possible.

Then, walking in to school this morning I spotted evidence of this passage of time behind the theater, remnants from that first set constructed for the summer musical. So alone there by the scene shop, that L of wood, colors faded some, but less than you’d expect, stood as a reminder of how far we’ve come.

IMG_7097Every June it’s tough to see the school year end, the seniors leave, and campus go dark between shows. For me at least, a bit of melancholy tints the sense of completion that comes with the end of the year. I know that whatever magic we experienced from August to June is going, never to be exactly the same. I know I’ll miss our graduates and the folks retiring from education. I’ll miss the parents of seniors, who I’ve come to adore and who I’ll see less starting in the fall. Each school year has its own personality, and as I see the teachers and students packing up props and costumes, I know that this run is coming to a close.

…and…

In the play that is education, opening night is never far away.

We’ll have a little cast party soon, we’ll take a few weeks off under the summer sun, and tuck the memories of this year into the pockets of our mind where we can find them in the times we need them. Then, we’ll take a deep breath, and return before the leaves turn red this fall to plan, prepare, and begin putting together the sets for a new run that promises to be filled with a music of its own.