Into the Sunset

The mural had remained unfinished for 25 years, a panel of the film unspooling above the door of what had been the film room started but never completed. Few noticed it, or said anything if they did, but this year, as ACMA turned its collective attention to the history of our artsy school, conversation sprang up about the unfinished mural in the main hallway.

So rich with possibilities.

It took about thirty seconds to realize that as the building entered its final year we ought to finish this picture. Sure, it wouldn’t be as long lived as the rest of the murals on campus, and…

To lean into a little Robert Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

I took to social media to ask if anyone wanted to pick up a paintbrush and finish the mural. An 8th grader was quick to say “yes.” We agreed that in keeping with that notion of art as experience, and underscoring the impermanence of art that our school is feeling collectively this year (as we prepare to move and see the 1949 building razed to make way for a new ACMA in 2021), we’d set the date for this completion in May.

As artists, we know that making art is where the magic lies, even if the physical life of that art is as impermanent as those first summer leaves. Sure, some of the big ones stick around, The Last Supper, the cave paintings at Lascaux, and such, but paint on a wall knows that its life is limited, and yet as humans we keep painting on walls.

Diego Rivera, the prolific Mexican muralist, recognized that “great art is like a tree, which grows in a particular place and has a trunk, leaves, blossoms, boughs, fruit, and roots of its own.” And while some redwoods tower above all others, other trees provide the wood from which humans have always built houses for shelter, ships for discovery, and the brushes, pencils, sculpting tools, sets, and stages that have given voice to art for eons and continue to do so today.

Rivera talked a lot about the importance of his work as it related to his culture, as true for him and Mexico as it is for us and ACMA. Enter that middle school artist with a box of paint and a ladder.

IMG_1616 (1)Hers would be the last mural at C.E. Mason Elementary, the longest running project in our school’s history, and a nod to art for the sake of art, not simply for longevity.

She decided, on the day she came in with a couple of friends to complete the painting, that she’d end the mural history of this building with a sunset.

“My friend told me ‘nothing gold can stay, Pony Boy,’” she explained to me with a smile, referencing the S.E. Hinton classic. That seemed right. “If you look closely you can see the two figures there watching the sun go down.”

Painting (and laughing and snacking and hanging out) took much of the day, as it had when the first artists pulled ladders to the wall back in 1994. Then, as now, making art at ACMA was both communal and filled with fun.

They even snuck a line from a My Chemical Romance song into another frame of the mural, a perfectly ACMA thing to do.

A quarter century later, that mural looks great, complete, ready for destruction when the school year ends. The destruction of the building, not the spirit of art. …and I like knowing that these same students will be juniors when we move to the new campus in 2021, ready to work on the first mural in the new ACMA. Stay gold, Pony Boy.

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“Action!”

1The audience laughed, and clapped, and held its collective heart. The film on the screen played to a big audience on the main stage of ACMA’s performing arts center. A collaborative effort, our Film Seminar students were given the challenge to create one film that they wrote, shot, and directed …and edited and mixed …oh, and cast, acted in, and scored.

Clever, heartfelt, and so very professional, Behind the Veil showed ACMA filmmaking at its best.

The students who made the film stepped to the stage afterward to talk about their process and their work. Delightful, honest, and so incredibly thoughtful about their film, they put on a master class in collaborative filmmaking, documenting the challenges of starting with a blank piece of paper, writing and revising, shooting, reshooting, adjusting, and making artistic decisions. The path they described was long, funny, and filled with the creative struggle that often defines great art.

Just from this Q&A the audience could see the genuine chemistry and respectful give and take that seem to have defined the project. There were opinions and strong points of view, artistic visions and practical decisions, wild concepts and grounded approaches to making things work. It was collaboration writ large, and the result was as stunning as the process was inspirational.

That inspiration showed up in the questions the audience asked. Curious to know about their influences, their choice of technology, and their approach to bringing this story to life, the students and adults who filled the theater asked about every aspect of the filmmaking, and the cast and crew were able to answer them in a way that blended the exuberance of being a high school student and the understanding of people who had studied their craft for a long, long time.

Familiarity with the history of film, and true appreciation for certain filmmakers, was evident in the answers students provided about cinematography, direction, and score. Not only were these students able to discuss why Christopher Nolan’s camerawork informed their shooting of specific scenes, for example, they also showed their confident approach to their own work as the student composer described how the director and producer had asked him to score the film, sometimes mentioning film composers by name as inspiration. “She thought I could sound like Hans Zimmer,” he said smiling. Truth be told, his score sounded better than some you’ll see in theaters.

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The film itself was a lovely story of romance as well as a marvelous take on the making of movies. Clever, creative, and self aware without being self serving, Behind the Veil told parallel stories of love, self expression, empowerment, and freedom. The usual cinematic stereotypes and expectations were brought out to be blown up. Genre shifting was deliberate and smart, and most importantly never got in the way of what was a meaningful and heartfelt love story.

One of my favorite moments of a wonderful night was when a student raised her hand and asked the panel two questions: What advice would you give future ACMA students if we’re given this assignment to make a film together? The students answered with humor and insight, offering a mix of good advice and funny anecdotes. Her next question: could this be something Mr. Bennett, ACMA’s film teacher, would do every year?

Hope and expectation are two of the best things art can inspire.

 

If you weren’t able to attend the premiere of Behind the Veil last night, you have one more chance today (March 3rd at 2PM) to see the film, watch a behind the scenes short, and hear the cast and crew talk about their art. If you’re anywhere near campus this afternoon it’s an inspiration you owe it to yourself to enjoy. Not sure? Check out the trailer here!

The Elephant in Moscow

Almost every year our jazz band packs up their instruments and drives to Idaho for the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Wildly gifted musicians, these students are great ambassadors for ACMA, inspiration to a world hungry for art, and a truly fun bunch.

This year, ahead of the trip, they hosted a fundraising concert where they could shake off any nerves ahead of the big festival performances and fill a jar with enough money to help make the trip to Idaho a big success.

It was a fantastic concert, as they always are, and this one felt a little different.

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It began with some R&B, musicians I’d heard play Monk and Ellington, brought some unexpected funk, and the crowd of jazz aficionados loved it. After that came the usual suspects: Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, some with stories to be told, others introduced with a smile and a sense of urgency to get to the tune, so beautiful it would be. Off to the side, one of our English teachers and his wife danced. Even before a pianist pointed out their swing, I could tell the students dug having them enjoying the music so much. They played on, bass thumping, horns blaring, and piano dancing up and down the register. Drum solos, a Frank Sinatra tune, and the playful banter of musicians comfortable with each other and engaged with the music they were playing, this was an example of the profound power of art. The concert ended with a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that would have made Nina Simone proud.

IMG_0444Throughout the night, as students adjusted the bass or tinkered with tuning, our jazz director stepped to the front of the stage and charmed the audience. We were getting every bit of professionalism we paid for at this free concert, he told us, we were seeing the fruits of the students’ labor, and getting a window into their artistic souls.

Midway through the performance, with a little longer time to fill, he told us a story.

“I’ve taken the kids on this trip to Moscow, Idaho ten of my eleven years at ACMA,” he said to the assembled crowd. “Sometimes the weather is great, and sometimes it’s crazy. One time a few years back we had a lot of snow. We were on the bus driving toward town, and out into the road stepped a big moose. He looked at our bus coming down on him and froze. There was nothing we could do. The bus hit the moose, and the moose was annihilated. So was the bus. It ruined the whole side of the bus. Nobody got hurt.” He smiled. “And it was one of those moments when I thought to myself: Should I call the principal? I mean nothing happened. A split second, that’s all I hesitated,” he said, nodding in my direction. “And then I saw that a kid had texted home: ‘Mom, We just hit an elephant!’”

IMG_0450It was an example of those nutty and unexpected incidents that define what it’s like to be an educator. Once we knew the kids were all okay, we could laugh together.

That’s a feeling not unlike what happens when a play wraps or a dance show is over, when Art is My Voice closes or the last audience members have headed home from a literary event with a copy of The Ballpoint tucked beneath their arms. There is a surprising joy in art, and sometimes conflict too, but in the end art has the capacity to leave us feeling better about our world.

One joy of working at an art school is seeing students finding their voices and sharing their passions with an audience. It makes me proud to think of the students who are traveling to Lionel Hampton, and happy to imagine the inspiration they’ll bring to the audiences there. Here’s hoping they don’t meet an elephant on the way.

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Unlock the Piano

We have a piano in the cafeteria. For years it was locked up, safe until it was needed for choir practice or the jazz band rehearsing for an upcoming show. It’s not a fancy instrument, just a simple upright that we get tuned often enough to stay relevant and got used just enough to justify keeping around. This fall, at the prompting of one of our amazing food service folks, we took off the lock. It has transformed lunch.

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As an art school we know that the students (and staff) who fill our halls are creative sorts. They sing and dance and act out scenes from Shakespeare, and that’s just between classes. It’s not unusual to find students sitting in the hallways at lunch reading something they’ve written to each other, hunched over a chromebook to watch a film one of them has shot and is editing, or practicing some of the steps they’ll use in tap class that afternoon.

We’re a school that loves applause, both giving and receiving, and bursts of clapping are common at lunch, during passing periods, and even sometimes in class.

Being a principal at a place like this brings more unexpected joys than I can articulate, it also brings the challenge of balancing opportunities for students to express their own creativity while building a positive community and running the day to day operations of a school.

To me this means not just promoting the established performances, but also inviting more impromptu opportunities for the creative souls who make up my school.

Screen Shot 2018-12-05 at 11.47.24 AMOnce we unlocked that piano in the cafeteria we saw students use it. From the most talented seniors, students who have gigs in Portland on weekends and can hold their own with professionals, to youngsters plunking out Für Elise, our kids sat down and played.

All this fall we’ve heard songs familiar and strange. Some days the cafeteria is filled with a sing along, other days it’s jazz or a cover of a Twenty One Pilots tune. Pop, classical, moody student compositions, we’ve heard them all. Last week I walked through the bustling lunchroom and it was the Harry Potter theme.

And something else happened too.

More and more I’ve heard music that isn’t just a piano. In addition to those students who gather around the pianist to sing, outside the cafeteria I’ve seen more kids strumming ukuleles in the hallway, and on a particularly sunny day I heard an impromptu violin concert outside.

violinI want to foster an environment where students are encouraged and inspired to make music in the hallways, the courtyard, and the cafeteria. My poets and painters, animators, ballet dancers, and photographers all benefit from being in a school where music fills campus. It’s not something I could or should legislate; my job as a steward to this magical school is to create opportunities, open spaces where students can bring their own art alive.

Listening to one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve ever heard of that old jazz standard “Body and Soul” the other day at lunch got me thinking about the other ways I can give my students the chance to overflow with artistic exuberance. They could be big ideas like adding a stage to the commons area of the new building that starts construction this summer, or small ones like putting up the wide swaths of paper for students to draw on in the Quonset Hut that serves as our cafeteria. It could be encouraging open mic nights, stopping to really listen when I hear students playing ukulele in the hallway, or posting images of student artwork and links to student films online.

At some schools it could be setting aside times and places that students can fill with their own voices. Some places have grand traditions, like Exhibition Day, others are ready to introduce new opportunities both big and small. At my little art school it might be as simple as giving license to extemporaneous artistic expression, or joining in on the applause I hear at lunch.

All of these are ways to support students and nurture creativity, ways of unlocking our pianos.

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.