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.

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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.

It’s in the name of the school…

The first performance I saw was the dance show last June. My family had flown to Portland to look for a place to live and I got to take a day to hang out at ACMA, my new home to be, ending the evening in the performing arts center watching ridiculously talented dancers show the magnificent power of art.

“That was high school?” my wife asked me at the end of the night. “That was ACMA,” I answered.

bowieEarlier in the day I’d visited art classes, seen students glazing ceramics, making music, and working on the “Senior Painting,” a larger than life David Bowie that now hangs outside my office.

I’d done my best to follow Arts & Communication Magnet Academy online, peeking in on Art is My Voice and a few Senior Capstones, but still not sure just how much art drives everything we do here at ACMA. The truth, from The Ballpoint literary anthology to the spectacular productions in our PAC, from the packs of students carrying musical instruments through the hallways to flocks of dancers in leotards hurrying to studios after lunch, from the raw energy of Open Mic Night to the polished performances of Senior Capstones, ACMA lives up to the descriptors in its name ARTS & COMMUNICATION.

Screen Shot 2018-02-06 at 9.50.21 AMThis year, like so many in ACMA’s quarter century of existence, was an explosion of creativity, and I had the privilege of watching it from the best seat in the house, as ACMA’s principal.

All the hard work of rehearsing, revising, rebuilding, of trying and failing, failing and trying again, working hard and succeeding brilliantly, manifested itself across the artistic spectrum. One of the strengths of our little school, in addition to being a home to students from 6th to 12th grade, is that it is a place where creativity of all kinds finds a home.

Our actors stretch their craft to include everything from Shakespeare to silliness. This year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Aesop’s Falables, and The Spitfire Grill showed audiences what can happen when amazing students are given the opportunity and support to plan, produce, and perform challenging material. From costumes to sets, music to marvelous performances, ACMA thespians brought down the house.

spitfireSome of those same students joined other student authors at this year’s Pinwheel Writing Celebration, and published stories and poems in the ACMA anthology, The Ballpoint. Our writers don’t always step on stage, but in the spring a trio of intrepid authors joined professional storytellers for this year’s Story Slam. Our winner moved on to a second round in Portland on the same night as prom. She performed that night in her formal dress, another example of what it means when we say “So very ACMA.”

Photographers, painters, ceramicists and more filled the foyer gallery of the performing arts center with “very ACMA” work at this year’s Art Is My Voice, where the variety of art was mind boggling.

faceSome ACMA musicians played at Art Is My Voice, filling the gallery with a little Brubeck as the crowd walked past giant cardboard objects, a miniature gallery, and hundreds of framed drawings, paintings, photos, and prints. It was just another example of the way ACMA students support each other and each other’s art. Some of these same musicians were on stage the next week, visual artists in the audience, playing one of many shows that filled our school with music this year.

Those concerts ran the gamut from profound to profoundly playful, often juxtaposing those two ends of the spectrum in one set. This spring, when I brought my reluctant nine year old to hear a show, he told me as we walked into the PAC: “Dad, I’m not going to enjoy this unless they play Star Wars.” Cue the Cantina Theme. He looked at me as if I’d worked magic. It wasn’t me, but a couple of conductors who filled their show with Beethoven, Brubeck, and even a little Soft Cell. If you haven’t heard the orchestral version of Tainted Love, you haven’t visited ACMA.

dance copyFor some who haven’t yet visited ACMA, our students brought their passion on the road, and this year in addition to Art Day, a wonderful tradition of inviting elementary students to our school, they added Art Day …on the Go! Student artists, dancers, and musicians loaded up on busses and traveled to elementary schools where they led students in making art, learning to dance, and then performing with the high schoolers. Magic is the word to describe it. ACMAgic.

That exuberant magic, blended with a sense of purpose, was also on stage in this year’s Dance West concert, Walk with Me. Honoring ACMA alum Haruka Weiser, the show was an amalgam of heart and soul, highlighting the passion and professionalism of this dedicated group of artists. It was every bit as moving as the show I saw last spring, and for me maybe even more so this year; I knew these kids.

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On stage and page, through music and movement, student artists capture the uncapturable in the work they create. In many cases the immediacy of hearing an author read or a musician sing, see a sculptor talk about her work or a dancer express feelings in her craft is profound. For one group of ACMA artists, their calling is capturing this magic through the eye of a camera.

I have a fondness for film, because even though it was visual artists whose work I first saw on my visit last June, and dancers whose work wowed me and my family even before I arrived permanently on campus, my very first taste of ACMA’s creative spirit was a movie.

I remember sitting in my office, hundreds of miles away, and getting an email from ACMA’s fantastic film teacher. In addition to the most heartfelt welcome to our school I could have imagined, he shared some links to films made by ACMA students. One stood out to me, Time a moving reflection on family and love. When the credits rolled I knew that I was coming someplace special.

Funny. Heartbreaking. Glorious. Real. Art at ACMA is all that and more. For the students and the staff at our amazing school, art is a way of life.

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Fine Young Cannibals

Art is about taking chances, learning from failure, and being willing to try something unexpected. In those ways it’s a lot like being a principal. The two pursuits converged this week when some intrepid student filmmakers asked me to be in their movie.

They guarded the script like it was a Star Wars film. I got my three pages without more context than I could put together from stage directions like:

The cannibal storms out of the room leaving behind her binder and the therapist grabs them and pulls out the sketches/drawings inside and looks through them, he fans them out and looks at each one until he comes to the last one, he holds it up so the camera can’t see it and it cuts to the next scene.

Intriguing.

My two short scenes, two voice overs, and single costume change set me up as the straight man, a mercifully unimportant and plausibly vegetarian character in a film titled Meat (An American Cannibal Film).

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As they set up the camera and lights in my office. The director, a senior whose easy smile helped put his two actors -me and a student whose artistic focus is drawing and painting- at ease, chatted with his sound man about verisimilitude and budget.

“It’s set in 1996,” he explained. “So I got an almost working answering machine at Goodwill for $9.” “Your budget for this is $9?” “Well, I spent $22 on fake blood.”

This was sounding increasingly like something I might regret more than my turn at Carpool Karaoke or the time I dressed up as one of the Blues Brothers and sang in front of the student body. Still…

These were great students. This mattered to them. My scene was relatively tame, a therapist and his patient. All that, along with some gentle reassurance from my film teacher who had seen the rough cuts, let me stay true to one of the tenets of my philosophy of being a principal: When students ask me to participate in something that is meaningful to them, even (or especially) if it is nutty, I do my best to say “yes.”

We shot after school on a Friday, a three person crew, the actor playing the cannibal, and me, filling my office for an hour or so, laughing, talking about art, and books, and movies between takes. That conversation, that opportunity to connect with some fantastic young people, was worth any embarrassment about my clunky acting abilities.

Because it isn’t really about my acting; it’s about being present for my students, participating in what is important to them, and allowing myself to play (and sometimes play the fool) in service of a spirit of fun that is important at a school, and indeed in life.

Our schools are stronger, safer, and better for all when students and adults are able to learn, laugh, and play together.

A willingness to start with “yes” has led to some of my favorite experiences and most meaningful connections with students, and I firmly believe that nurturing this more playful side helps to make me a better principal when the stressful realities of the work require gravitas, a clear head, and a commitment to doing right. Silly, serious, sanguine, it’s about making students the priority.

So my first entry in IMDB will read “Dr. Monroe” in Meat (An American Cannibal Film). It may turn out to be this generation’s Night of the Living Dead or a silly footnote to the illustrious director’s future fame, but whatever shows up on screen I’ll carry with me fond memories of a great afternoon shared with artists and creative souls, fine young cannibals.

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Doodling

At one of our school information nights, after we’d talked to the crowd of potential ACMA students and families, a panel of current students took questions from the audience. Most of what they asked could have been expected: What are your favorite classes? Can sixth graders try out for plays? How much homework do you get a night? The kids answered them marvelously, of course; given an opportunity to talk about their school, students have the ability to show the poise and passion, intelligence and good humor that defines them.

Toward the end of the Q&A, a little girl raised her hand. She was a fifth grader, curious if ACMA was for her, and when one of our current students nodded toward her outstretched hand, she asked her question: “Do teachers let you doodle in class?”

“What?” One of our students asked her, uncertain if she’d heard it right.

“Doodling,” the little girl answered. “Can you doodle during class. My teacher now won’t let us.”

As an educator and the dad of two kids, my heart broke a little.

And then our student laughed, kindness in her voice. “Of course,” she reassured the girl with a smile. “This is ACMA. You can doodle.”

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That question and answer stuck with me throughout the week.

I found myself in a painting class alongside the girl who had provided the answer. She and her teacher were chatting as she sketched and I brought up the exchange. “I suppose I should have said you can doodle in math class as long as you’re willing to do math in painting,” she said to her teacher. He grinned. “You remember last year when you did that?” She looked puzzled. “Seriously, you were doing math one day in Drawing II.” How very ACMA, I thought.

At the end of the week we had an all school assembly, and because of a mix up in communication, the video that was to anchor the day came in at just over two minutes, not just over twenty minutes. Oops. It was time to improvise and that girl and her question echoed in my mind again. I asked for a flip chart of paper, a pen, and an easel.

The crowd collected, I shared the story about Information Night’s doodle question.  Beyond cute or whimsical, it struck me as something more.

Doodling is creativity run wild. It is what grows outside the planter boxes of learning. These scribblings are imagination circling around structure, our unconscious self appearing next to the information we have to record.

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There are those who believe that doodling can enhance our life and learning, helping us be more productive, or freeing our emotions when words are not enough. Judy Blume, an author that fifth grader might have read in school, admitted that “I doodle a lot and often get my best ideas with a pencil in my hand while I’m doodling.” 

The spirit of an artist appears through her doodles.

So I talked with our students about the importance of exuberant creativity and allowing ourselves the freedom to keep open our imaginations. I confessed to being a doodler myself, and took the time to sketch a pirate on the paper on stage. While it was nothing fancy, I hope that the act of seeing their principal draw in front of them and praise the act of putting pencil or pen to paper will stick around as long as that girl’s question has for me.

I hope that when they’re sitting in class, or when my teachers are sitting in a meeting, they won’t feel a stigma for drawing lines or flowers, robots or leaves, caricatures or boxes and arrows. Who knows, maybe the result will be something that moves discussion in that classroom or that meeting forward. Maybe they too will get some of their best ideas with a pencil in their hand.

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A Great Hall of Reflection

“Art … is a great hall of reflection where we can all meet and where everything under the sun can be examined and considered.”
                                  -Iris Murdoch

Just about every morning I take a walk. At 7:30 my amazing assistant, Margaret, and I cue up a song, turn on the PA, and let music fill ACMA. For the next five minutes, as students hurry to classes to the sound of Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald, Sharon Jones or David Bowie, Mozart or Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, I walk.

coffeeA cup of coffee in hand, I navigate the front hall by the main office, zigging around the trophy case filled with ceramics, dodging kids wrapped in fleece blankets (a thing at ACMA during these cold winter months) and turn the corner by the door of the dance studio at the mouth of ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice.

Every morning I see teachers standing at doorways greeting students, I see kids carrying projects (a canvas, a sculpture, the makings of a robotic hand), and I find myself surrounded not just by art on every wall, but by the creative student artists who make our school the work of art that it is.

Ours is a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. We are a place that exudes the creative spirit, a place where students create their identities as well as their art. At ACMA we laugh often, dream big, and are comfortable being just a little bit different. Seeing this creativity made manifest every morning is an inspiration.

To walk down ACMA’s hallways first thing in the morning, The Clash, The Bangles, or The Beatles filling the air, is to see hope.

At 7:30 in the morning students are focused on what’s ahead. They’re not performing; they’re preparing. As these artists, writers, dancers, and musicians move together through the hallways, nodding hellos to one another, smiling, and toting instruments, cameras, and portfolios, they seem to me less a disconnected collection of individuals and more the cohesive colors of a creative rainbow. They share a desire to make art and a poetic way of seeing the world.

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My walk takes me to the end of the hallway, past paintings and wire sculpture, past displays about LBGTQ pride and announcements for upcoming productions, beneath student murals reaching back for decades and temporary installations on kindness, body image, and environmental issues.

Each step, to the strains of Mendelssohn or the bounce of Billie Holiday, takes me through a sea of anticipation. The day is about to begin. In the next hours together students will dance, and sing, and draw, and sculpt. They will write, and act, and make films. They will discuss literature and math, debate history, experiment in science (and maybe artistically too). They will support one another, encourage one another, and help each other be the best artists (and people) they can be.

Well, once they’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes; 7:30 am is awfully early for artists.

To help them wake up we may cue up some Prince or Buckshot LeFonque, Pink Martini or Johnny Cash. Whatever the soundtrack for the morning, the feeling is the same: gratitude for being at ACMA, excitement for the creative process, and a belief that today great things may happen.

I never take that morning walk for granted. Never. It’s a time to connect with students and staff, absorb the inspiration of our vibrant school, and witness first hand the profound power of creativity.