A Mural in Progress

It’s the last week of school and I’m living in a yearbook. Around me on all sides are the scrawls and drawings, wisdom and vulgarity, cartoons and catchphrases, a cacophony of teenagers with sharpies. Near the Tom Marsh Gallery, a unicorn. By the dance studio, a rainbow handprint. And just outside my office, a cartoon of Thanos is snapping our current building away.

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That snap isn’t far from the truth. In just a few days rumbling machines will rip down the walls of the C.E. Mason Elementary building that has housed our campus since ACMA came into being. Gone will be the cherished murals. Gone will be the wooden wainscoting. Gone will be the gentle slope of the hallway outside the darkroom.

Knowing that this chapter in ACMA’s history was coming to a close, our graduating seniors took it upon themselves to paint the interior courtyard one night before graduation. We walked in the next morning to a kaleidoscope of color, birds, rainbows, and more than a few stenciled Mona Lisas. The substitute custodian that day walked up to me as I was coming onto campus. “Is this some kind of a mural?” He asked, “Or graffiti?” I looked around at the bright colors, creative images, and statements of love. “It’s ACMA,” I answered.

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The next day was a perfect storm. Literally.

Underclassmen were amazed when they saw the painting on the walls. Strolling around the courtyard, posing for photos, and laughing, they relished the seniors’ art. That afternoon we gave out yearbooks, and as we did the skies opened and a profound thunderstorm brought rain down in sheets and pushed students into the hallways. …sharpies for signing yearbooks in hand.

IMG_2088You can see where this is going.

What happened next was a window into our school’s collective soul.

But we are an arts school, and the faces that looked out from the walls, the animals who galloped, scurried, and flew over the plaster, and the wild colors that covered the eggshell white were incredible.

Bathroom graffiti seldom includes portraits of Frida Kahlo. Ours did.

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We saw examples of cubism, cartoons, and clever creativity. Scattered between, above and beyond were names, messages, and quotations.

The students chose to write and draw on surfaces they knew would be torn down as part of the major construction beginning in July. They stayed away from the portables that will be sold off and honored the established student art that has been up on the walls since the school began. So many used the opportunity as a way to make their artistic mark on a school they care about. It was overwhelming.

…and…

We had to close one of the bathrooms because of some naughty pictures and inappropriate words. And while the students didn’t mess with any of our murals, they did color outside the proverbial lines, both in terms of location and content. Some comments were vulgar, others simply mean.

In terms of quantity, the positive outweighed the negative like elephants to mice, but that didn’t make any of the negative less jarring.

IMG_2092We are a school that aspires to kindness, acceptance, and caring; we are a school made up of humans, fallible, clumsy, sometimes careless humans.

So we adults painted over a few words that weren’t meant for school, and the next day I got on the PA to share a message with my kids:

We’re ACMA; we’re artists. We’re creative, interesting, and have the ability to be thoughtful, to choose to be kind, and to make good decisions.

This week, following our seniors’ decorations of the courtyard, many of us took up the pens we were using to sign yearbooks and added our marks to the walls of this old building. I get it. It’s a human need to want to connect and belong. Overwhelmingly those little pieces of art have been positive and showed the creativity within us. Some weren’t.

So I wanted to reach out to you now with three things:

First, honor each other, the murals that are on our walls, and who we aspire to be at ACMA. Please do not write things on the wall that are vulgar or crass, that insult anyone, or would embarrass your grandmother.

Second, please do not make any marks on the wood, doors or wainscoting; we are salvaging some of this wood to be incorporated in our new building, and we want to have enough wood to be able to do that.

Third, be kind. Treat our venerable building well. It has served as a home for ACMA for decades and we do right when we show it, and the people who take care of it, respect. We have just three more days together on this campus; let’s finish strong. Together.”

After that, more of the same. Meaning a few of the bad words and inappropriate images, but even more of the colorful drawings, scores of them, notes of appreciation for our school, and even a quote from Hamlet.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

IMG_2093And my frustration at what some would rightly consider vandalism began to shift. Yes, I did my best to monitor what students were writing, and yes I joined our patient custodian in covering the naughtiest of the words, but I recognized that for a principal who values feedback, this living yearbook was providing a roadmap of what to celebrate, what to question, and what to change moving forward.

Some of the uglier graffiti, tucked in bathroom stalls and the corners where peers couldn’t see them draw it, told me that we still have work to do with regard to treating others with respect. We put energy into fostering positive interpersonal relationships, and we’ve got to do more to help this be a universal value. That these types of comments weren’t front and center like the more artistic offerings told me that even those who wrote them recognize that they’re not something in keeping with our school community.

IMG_2098Some of the graffiti made me question what more I can do to involve students in more of the decision making that happens on campus. Their thoughtful remarks about the end of this era, saying goodbye to a building they obviously love, and the transformative power of art reinforced that “the kids” (or at least some of them) are mature beyond their years. Harnessing this passion will be a challenge that, done right, can be a powerful force for good at ACMA.

And image after image, comment after comment, this installation piece that our school became provided those of us willing to slow down and really look with much to celebrate.

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The seniors, who started the whole shebang, left messages of love, affirmation, and acceptance. From the Freddie Mercury stencils to the rainbows, hearts, and expressions of love, they demonstrated in glowing color the values that make art the universal language of hope.

The others, who joined in with the emerging voices of sixth through eleventh graders, added to that youthful exuberance with their own perspectives, mostly positive, about the world they are creating, on a canvas they love that is being destroyed.

I can honestly say that I hope to never have this experience again in my professional life, and…

IMG_2102I have learned to appreciate the gift that graffiti offered me, an opportunity to see what’s happening in the hearts and heads of my students. …and what we saw was overwhelmingly good.

Our students are hungry for opportunities to share their creativity, their thoughts, and their passions. This doesn’t have to be through visual art or yearbook style quotations, though it can be. It might also look like open mic nights, literary publications, and chances online to share a little bit of who they are.

While I can’t say I’ll miss it, not at all, post-snap I can say that I will think about it, and doing so I will look for ways my students can have their voices heard throughout the year, not just on walls.

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Bitesize Slices of History

Last summer I started doing a little research. Knowing that we’d be saying goodbye to the C.E. Elementary School building that has been home to ACMA since it opened in 1992, I began poking into closets, searching old files, and combing the collective memory of the alumni and staff who had been on campus in years gone by. My hope was to find a few stories worth telling, tales that captured a bit of what it was like both in the years when Arts & Communication was young, and even farther back, reaching into history to know a little more about the school as it was closer to its opening in 1949.

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Along the way I met some incredible people, heard stories that touched my heart (and more than a few that made me laugh aloud), and came to an even greater appreciation of our little school.

Each week from August until June I posted a slice of the history online, and since a couple of folks asked to see the whole shooting match, I collect it here.

Bitesize Slices of History from ACMA

If you’ve got a rainy evening or long summer afternoon and feel like hearing a few tales from Center Street, the PDF provides -in roughly chronological order- some stories that hint at the magic that is ACMA.

Far from a complete chronology, these snapshots offer a taste of what was happening on campus from 1949-2019, a glimpse of the world gone by. Out there in our community and beyond are more stories, scores more, that would make you cry, make you smile, and make you shake your head as you whispered “I can’t believe it” even though you could.

This is ACMA, after all, where anything can happen, and might already have.

The Doors

The End

In just a couple of weeks we’ll be walking out the door of ACMA, down the stairway beneath the circular portico, and away from a building that won’t exist when we begin school in the fall. It’s a weird feeling, knowing that this building we love won’t be standing by the start of school next year, and that makes it an emotional time for lots of us who have called the C.E. Mason Elementary School building home, some for decades. And…

It’s going to be okay. We know that the heart of our school isn’t in the walls (that would be asbestos and seventy year old plaster). The real ACMA is in the people who fill the school, kids and adults, and the history of creative souls who have called our school home over the years.

Riders on the Storm

Amid this emotional maelstrom, we spent some time this year honoring that history, and the results have been fabulous, including a fun alumni night in February, slide shows at lunch, and some fantastic documentaries by our film students.

In addition, we’re working to bring some of the distinctive ACMA wainscoting with us to serve as the front of the circulation desk in the library and the reception desk in the main office of the new campus, we’ve captured the murals that can’t be moved in photographs that will fill our temporary campus in the fall, and we have a deal with the movers that they’ll save all the painted doors on campus for us, which we’ll use as an installation art show in the fall of 2021.

And as we listened to students, staff, and alumni, we got to thinking, is there a way we could each take part of our school with us?

People are Strange

Those of us who know and love our school know that the exquisite strangeness of ACMA is something marvelous. Unconventional, creative, wildly iconoclastic, our school embraces looking at things divergently, and at their best the results can be fantastic.

That perspective led a few of us to start kicking around other ideas for how we might keep the spirit of C.E. Mason alive, and someone thought…

Hello, I Love You

We love our old building, and hate to see it go, and while we know we can’t save every corner, what if we kept that door of memory open by having something we could save, a little piece of at least, something to hold, something to take with us.

We looked around at what that something, or those somethings might be. Knowing that we have a talented group of stagecrafters, we headed out to the scene shop and ran an idea past some saw wielding techs.

Break on Through

We have these doors, we told them, robust, solid, and installed in the 1940s. What if we took a few of the doors that haven’t been made into canvases for our artists off their hinges and chopped them into cubes of ACMA that we could stamp and give away?

The students smiled and nodded to each other. “We could do that.”

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…and so I have two boxes of ACMA in my office.

Some pieces of ACMA were given out at our ACMA Spectacular, others will go to 2019 graduates, still others will find their way onto desks and bookshelves, atop coffee tables and into dorm rooms, little reminders of a school we love.

Today

I sometimes get asked what it’s like to work at ACMA. People know the school for our amazing performances, have been impressed by our students’ artwork, or maybe even visited campus to watch a senior capstone or volunteer at a dance or activity. They know that we’re a place of wild creativity, acceptance (even encouragement) for the unconventional, and a place where students can discover themselves as people as well as artists.

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Are there really students who wear horns/stilts/tails/capes/youfillintheblank? some ask. Yeah, I answer. But we’re more than any fashion choice.

Do students really play music in the hallways, take dance for PE, and not have a mascot? Yep. But we’re more than these choices and exuberant expressions of art.

You were in a student’s film about cannibals? We’re more than any single strange decision by the principal. We’re ACMA.

A magical place.

As I reach the end of a long series of posts on Arts & Community Magnet Academy’s history, I wanted to pause long enough to share a handful of the pixie dust that is ACMA today.

These half dozen stories seem, from my perspective, to capture some of the magic that is our school. If you’re willing to click on the links, you’ll find a window into our world. They certainly can’t catch all the spirit of our little school, but taken as snapshots can give a sense of the family album.

Any ACMA album would include silly photos. Our yearbook, for instance, knows the value of a rainbow wig, false glasses, and giant doughnut.

Halloween at ACMA is a national holiday, and more than a good excuse for students (and staff) sharing their creativity in a playful and proudly public way. It is a great day to expect the unexpected and more fun than anyone should have at school.

Here we believe in the transformative power of art, including the possibility of creating a community welcoming to all and truly a haven for hope and justice.

That hope and justice extends beyond the community writ large, and shows itself in the little and profoundly meaningful interactions we see every day.

“So very ACMA.”

Yep. That’s us.

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Paper Dresses, Organized Chaos, and a Prayer

As the 2000s became the 2010s ACMA continued to evolve as an arts school. Students pursued traditional pathways like painting, drawing, dance, and theatre, and pushed the boundaries of art in ways as creative and diverse as the students themselves.

IMG_5082One example of this exuberant innovation came when an unusual fashion show took to the main stage of the PAC: Paper Dresses.

Gail Heymann, who taught the book arts class behind the show, remembered groups led by seniors collaborating on designing and creating a “creative fashion made of paper.” They worked together to choose materials, much from the stacks and stacks “hoarded” in the back storage room. Then, using sheet music, recycled material, and patterned paper, they became fashion designers.

Dance instructors worked with the models on their runway struts, an audience of students filled the PAC, and with the jazz band playing behind them, paper dresses took to the stage.

Look at photos of the event and you’ll be inspired by the whimsy and artistry of the student designers. The dresses, vests, and hats are all made from paper, soaring expressions of creativity.

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The models look like they’re having a good time too.

As one graduate put it: “I always felt a little like a wizard, and when I came to ACMA I found my Hogwarts.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 7.20.04 AMDumbledore to that Hogwarts for thirteen years was Michael Johnson, who cared for  deeply about the arts and his student artists. In the spirit of ACMA, he answered the request of his graduates in 2014 with a song.

A student accompanied Mr. Johnson on piano when during the commencement ceremony the principal picked up a microphone and sang The Prayer, a song made popular by Celine Dion.

His voice filled the performing arts center with care and paternal affection as he sang:

Just like every child
Needs to find a place,
Guide us with your grace
Give us faith so we’ll be safe”

ACMA has been, is, and will continue to be that place of safety and grace, passion and purpose, acceptance and celebration. Its magic is hard to pin down, but no less tangible than a paper dress or a song.

What is ACMA? Ask a dozen ACMA students and you’ll get thirteen answers. None, I’ll wager, are better than this summation by current ACMA freshman Eli Merritt. “In jazz, everything is about making chaos orderly, whether it’s learning to solo calmly at an incredibly slow tempo behind a singer or playing some lick at lightning fast speeds. I believe that can be used to represent ACMA as a whole. We’re chaotic, but our chaos is the most organized thing about most of us. And that’s true for all of our art forms. Here at ACMA, we are more than just the artists, we are the art. We are more than individuals, we are a family.”

A Surreal and Welcome Luxury

Look back at the newspaper articles chronicling the opening of ACMA’s Performing Arts Center and you’ll find a sense of wonder and appreciation.

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The Oregonian reported on the PAC’s opening back in 2010, quoting ACMA Senior Nathan Avakian, who said: “For most of the ACMA students, it’s slightly overwhelming. It gives us something to work up to. When you walk in and you see the space — and it’s gigantic compared to what we’ve been working in — it makes you to want to do work that has that same size impact.”

That gigantic ambition to create has continued at ACMA for almost a decade.

But the journey to completion started much earlier, with a groundbreaking ceremony under the March sun where students talked about the excitement and anticipation that went along with such an impressive building. Until the late 2000s “new construction” at ACMA meant portables or 1958’s Quonset Hut; the PAC would be a huge step forward in the life of our little school.

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Brian Bertram, who has directed plays in both the PAC and Quonset Hut, described the Performing Arts Center as “a grand palace, filled with bells and whistles, begging us to play to our hearts’ content. We have our large proscenium auditorium, microphones, and high-tech lighting instruments (that can be programmed to move on their own!), a truly pre-professional space where students can learn how the larger theatres in the “real world” operate.” And… he added, “for a more intimate experience, students can be seen acting and teching in the Blue Box, a black box theatre that (for a piece of nostalgia) still runs with the light board from our cafeteria stage days!”

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The PAC has seen performances and art shows large and small, with Art is My Voice taking over the foyer gallery every spring, scores of Senior Capstones, dance shows, musicals, plays, and concerts. It’s in the PAC that we have movie nights, open mic nights, storytelling, and huge collaborations like this year’s ACMA Spectacular.

During the school day it also serves as a place where we come together as a student body for assemblies, to hear guest artists, and gather in those times we need to be together. The red interior was aptly described by former principal Michael Johnson as the color of a heart.

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As ACMA’s Savant newspaper said in 2010: “With velvety red interior, harmonious acoustics, and plush folding chairs, stepping inside the new Performing Arts Center strikes any student as a surreal and welcome luxury.”

…the heart of our campus.

Theatre is Beautiful

IMG_0096Remnants of memory still fill the walls of the storage area behind the cafeteria, words from across the years looking down on piles of plywood sets and platforms, scraps of faux brick, wooden boxes, swinging stage doors, and even a wooden shield or two. This was once “backstage,” though there wasn’t actually a connecting door that actors could open, when the stage at ACMA was the south end of the Quonset Hut. This was before the Performing Arts Center opened on campus in 2010 and it saw the genesis of theatre at ACMA.

“There wasn’t a shell or cyclorama to hide the wooden backstage structure” recalls Linda Bloom, who taught theatre and tech in that airplane hanger. “One year there was a technical theatre class. The first order of business was to paint the backstage area black. We also painted the stage black. Lots of black paint, many hours, several coats. It was starting to look like a real theatre space.”

Those early shows were adventures in ingenuity for clever directors, flexible performers, and Herculean stage managers. “Dressing Rooms? There were two locker rooms behind the stage area,” explained Linda Bloom. “The custodial staff used one for excess supplies/furniture. The other was for props and costumes, in bad need of organizing. Tech theatre began to hang costumes and label the prop boxes. Casts preferred to change in the school restrooms. This meant the building had to be opened during any type of performance because there were no self-contained restrooms in the food court facility, proper makeup lights were non-existent. The cast put on makeup and dressed in the restrooms, while the audience was also using them.” She laughed at the memory, grief softened by time gone by, and then described the ACMA production of Bullshot Drummond, a crime farce “with about three thousand props, each used barely once.”

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Those long tables of hats, and books, and coffee cups, stretched out in the “prop room,” which Linda explained “was also considered the ‘green room’ where the actors hung when they weren’t on stage. Of course they couldn’t hear the  show, and that meant they couldn’t hear their cues, so frequent visits to the backstage happened often, so as not to miss an entrance.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 9.03.03 AMACMA’s first musical was in that almost real looking space, The Apple Tree, in 2009. Brian Bertram remembers that “it sat roughly eighty people in very uncomfortable chairs. The ‘dressing rooms’ were on either side of the stage, and some overflow in the portables. Nevertheless, we had a two person live band (keyboards by Jodie DeHaven, all other instruments by Alex Milstead). The refrigerators that always had to stay plugged in would kick on in the middle of every performance, and they were SO loud! Performances always smelled like chicken nuggets, and we had little control over the heat. Rehearsals took place all over the school in any found space with a piano.”

That willingness and ability to stand by the old axiom the show must go on was just something ACMA theatre did. Our kids owned “our makeshift stage with pride, confidence, and a love of theatre that transcends the space,” remembers Brian Bertram, “making it a magical place, filled with passion and excitement.”

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The Apple Tree wasn’t the only show with that passion and excitement. Jon Albertson recalled a production of Much Ado About Nothing set as a 1960s Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon beach picture. The war was replaced by a surf contest, and he played the friar while his son played Leonato. “My most vivid memory is completely spacing my lines during the wedding scene,” he told me “and my son leaned over and cued me.”

Performers working together made the space work, sometimes magically.

From Gossip to Kahlo’s View, jazz concerts, dance shows, The Good Doctor, and Antigone, ACMA thespians, musicians, dancers, and other performers made the stage their own.

Even after those programs left the Quonset Hut, whispers of memory remain.

IMG_0102They can be heard with a visit into the rooms behind what was the stage today. On the walls, messages from theatre students (addressed to theatre students) talk about love, appreciation, and the importance of taking risks and making art.

Students who performed in this unique venue could tell you a thing or two about making creative magic.

IMG_1218Ovid’s Metamorphosis, for example, when Director David Sikking and his crew built a giant pond to serve as the stage. Actors were barefoot, and moved over and around the water as part of the show.

…and when they knew it was coming to an end as a performance space, creativity had one last surprise. For ACMA’s production of Alice in Wonderland, theatre techs cut trapdoors in the stage, knowing this was the final show. Fanciful, fabulous, and freeing, the “cafegymnatorium” had one final run to offer the performers.

No matter the space, the creativity that artists bring to their surroundings can be inspiring. As the back of a weathered metal door tucked in the back of what is now a storage room tells anyone willing to listen: “Theatre is Beautiful.”

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