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.

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 7.53.18 AM

…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.”

Advertisements

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.

IMG_6267

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.

IMG_6194

Being (more) Human

“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
-James Baldwin

We are, as a school, a community that can. We can create art with wild abandon. We can create connections with real purpose. We can create community with a clear conscience.

IMG_5668What we can’t do is rely on reputation, no matter how well earned. That ACMA is a place that is welcoming to all, that we are a school that honors and celebrates students of diverse backgrounds, cultural heritages, gender identities, and points of view is a reality we need to continue to build day by day, interaction by interaction, and purposeful choice by purposeful choice.

I see this choice of kindness every day as I walk through our halls. A commitment to kindness, and to each other, manifests itself in activities like the Kindness Project that some of our students took on earlier in the year, the boards of affirmations in our hallways, and the support I see in classrooms across campus as students strive to create and refine their art.

As a school we’ve made the choice to hang banners in the hallways celebrating more than just upcoming events and school spirit. A quotation from Martin Luther King hangs above our front door, another from Henry James reminds the students:

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Just outside our main office two displays celebrate the sense of belonging we hope all our students and staff feel here at ACMA. One, with silly yearbook photos of our staff against a backdrop of puzzle pieces leaves one spot for the observer; a mirror at eye level hangs next to the words “You fit right in.” I see students look at this every week.

IMG_5662Across the hallway another set of puzzle pieces decorate the wall just inside the front door. Surrounding a hand crafted “Welcome to ACMA,” the ACMA set against a rainbow, are connected puzzle pieces made by every new student to our school. On the first day of classes new students each decorated a puzzle piece and now every day they can see how they fit together to form the colorful mosaic of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

But kindness isn’t as simple as a jigsaw puzzle. Human nature can be cruel as often as it is kind. Stress, fear, and anxiety can make us careless, inconsiderate, or even mean. Teenagers aren’t immune to the thoughtless word or inconsiderate remark that escapes from the best of adults.

And in the face of this reality, art.

In his 1962 essay “The Creative Process” James Baldwin described the challenges and opportunities of being an artist. As he writes about the “battle” societies have all had with “the incorrigible disturber of the peace – the artist” he lands on the idea that it is the power of art that illuminates the truth and has the possibility to make change.

Baldwin describes the tension between artists and society as necessary, art providing the questioning that allows society to transform; society providing the structure needed for such institutions as education. As vigorous as this tension can be, he maintains that:

Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

That freedom he writes about it more than a freedom to do, but also a freedom to see clearly the possibilities for societies to be their best, to confront injustice, to heal divisions, and to practice hope.

Through art, we have the potential to “make the world a more human dwelling place.”

Writing of the particular place of American artists, as true in 1962 as 2018, Baldwin suggests:

We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World.”

Locally, here at ACMA we have the possibility to transform ourselves through art in a way that Baldwin imagines for the greater world. Beyond puzzle pieces and vinyl banners, in addition to posters and projects, through the art our students create we can question, challenge, and celebrate the world we live in.

IMG_5672In ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice our students share thoughtful and thought provoking pieces that ask our student body to question, reflect, and act. Posters celebrate the diversity of our community and show that as a school we value each student, each person, who is a part of our community. That there are many voices in that hallway is a result of Baldwin’s belief that the role of artists is to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

If we believe in Baldwin’s assessment of the role of the artists, it is through our creative spirit that we can “illuminate that darkness” and “blaze roads through vast forests.” Here at ACMA it is through paint and movement, ink and music, clay, cameras, and creativity that we can reinforce the goodness we want to see in our world.

In the weeks ahead I look forward to working with our artists to think about this social aspect of the work they create. What opportunities do we have? What truth do we want to tell? How can we, each of us, make our world a more human dwelling place?

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.

IMG_4637

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.

At the Bower Museum

photo 1 (2)Today I looked into the eyes of a two thousand year old man. His expression, serious and enigmatic, looked back at me from across centuries and I couldn’t help but think that in another two millennia I’ll be dust and that terra cotta figure from a Chinese tomb will still be gazing out at museum goers through an inch of protective glass.

The power of art never ceases to astound me. Whether a piece of music, a play, or poem, the products of creativity offer humble humans like us the opportunity to transcend time.

Some works -those chiseled in marble or carved into mountains- offer the illusion that they will outlive any others. Some -sculpted in movement or performed onstage- seem more transitory, their lives lived in those magical moments shared between artist and audience. But art scoffs at these distinctions. Remember “Ozymandias.”

…Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains…”

That recent archaeologists have dug up something they could link to Shelley’s description matters little; it is the words of the poem that people remember, not a statue. Thank art for another good reminder not to pin our ambitions on a single work, no matter how solid, but rather to revel in the act of creating.

The product of this creation matters far less than the action of imagination. A song can be forgotten, a canvas scraped clean to make way for another painter, a statue shattered. The feeling of writing, painting, dancing, or digging fingers into clay, however, stands a chance of being transformative.

What this transformation means could be far ranging: seeing the world through the eyes of another, maybe finding beauty in the unexpected, or inspiration in the struggle of life.

For students there may be no more important kind of lesson than art.

clayEncouraging students to make our, both in their comfort area and beyond it, is a privilege and challenge for all of us who make education our life’s work.

Arguing for science or math education is an easily justified endeavor. Statistics abound that show how a strong course of study in the hard sciences can lead students to careers that make a difference.

The humanities also matter much; good communicators with a sense of history and proportion are not only a vital component to our civil society, but sometimes are the only voices capable of helping us put into perspective the complicated world we live in.

photo 4 (2)Painting? Poetry? Dance?

Without veering into a speech from Dead Poet’s Society, I’ll simply argue that the students who make art create for themselves a richer world.

The same four year old who moves to “The Wheels on the Bus” may find a similar release at fourteen when she choreographs a dance to something by Branford Marsalis. The six year old so proud of his work with crayons and construction paper may find, at sixteen, that through oil on canvas or pen and ink scribblings in a sketchbook he is able to make sense of the strange and wonderful journey into adulthood.

photo-2-2Beyond these very personal relationships with creating art, students benefit from the process of goal setting, the productive struggle of bringing vision into being, and the focus required to make art.

I once worked with a gifted sculpture teacher who called these “soft skills,” though truth be told I don’t see anything soft about them. Successful artists, as well as successful humans, develop a vision, create a plan, and work extraordinarily hard to make this art take shape.

Ballet or ballad, triptych or tragedy, the product these young artists create and the process by which they create it as as important as anything they learn in a lab or a lecture hall.

Why art? Because it matters.

It matters to artists and to audiences.

Art makes a difference in individual lives and in the lives of communities. At its best it transforms spirits and might, just maybe, reach across generations and connect with a stranger, terra cotta eyes inspiring reflection.

Art, Angelic

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise”
John Donne

I sat in the darkened theater listening to the orchestra’s introductory suite, anticipating the actors preparing to step on stage. I’d been over to the theater earlier in the week, returning a wig and glasses those artistic souls had loaned me for my own performance at an assembly, and had seen the opulence of the set: a tree winding its way to the sky, arched windows in a wall of stone, and a throne resembling something out of Henry V.

addamsI’d watched a preview of the musical number that started the show, a witty tune complete with snapping, a light bulb, and a tango interlude. These were outrageously talented students and the evening was young.

Art has a way of elevating our human experience, and working at a school with a thriving artistic heart never ceases to inspire me.

I know that the intellectual underpinnings of what we do at school matter much, and watching a student lead her peers through a difficult math problem, or seeing a young scientist collaborate with others to learn how to do bone repair in a science class brings its own sense of hope for our world. Math, science, history, these all help to form our future; art transforms us.

photo-4-3I see this magical transformation when I walk into the student art gallery on campus and take the time to really look at the paintings and sculpture of our student curated shows. It’s there in the sounds of students playing guitars on the lawn as they make music together, some of it their own. I see the transformative nature of art in every senior tile on campus, a legacy of ceramic squares that reaches back for decades and reinforces to students that each of them contribute to this school and its history.

Just this week a new mural went up on the outside wall of our screen printing shop (itself a realm of wild creativity). Not only is this new piece of student work transformative, but it also transforms. The student artist incorporated living moss along with the painted image; it is a mural that will literally grow over time. How wonderful to know that there are places in this rational world where dreams can become reality, where flights of fancy take to the air, raising our collective spirit with them.

stephanie-rivera-mural

Four centuries ago the British poet John Donne noticed (in verse) that while the globe was round, our human imaginations can transfigure “imagined corners” into something angelic. I see it every day on our campus, and felt it profoundly that night in the theater as trumpets not unlike those described by Donne finished the orchestral introduction, the curtains opened, and the winter musical began.

Great actors can elevate comedy into emotional resonance, and these students did. Songs soared, laughter burst from the audience, and for a couple of hours every soul in the theater was allowed to be a visitor to a world of artistic inspiration.

Our education system values facts and formulas and figuring things out, and it should. But just as we want our students to be able to navigate the globe, so too how important it is that they can find their way through art to the earth’s imagined corners.

The Girl in the Garden

I’m a bit of researcher. I love learning about things, cracking open history books, going exploring around my own school’s campus in search of stories, and talking with folks who were there then and are willing to share. And…

Sometimes the pinch of magic that comes from ambiguity is okay too.

It’s like that for me with regard to the girl in the garden. I noticed her during my first summer at San Dieguito, looking out from a corner of campus designated as the “SDHS Natural Habitat” by a wooden sign that looks like it came from decades ago. She is smiling, and looking off as high school students do toward a future only she can see.

photo-4Over time I’ve seen her move. No. I’ve seen her in different parts of the garden. Most often after such a relocation she stays for a bit. Still smiling. Watching our current students move from class to class as the seasons turn from fall to winter to spring to summer.

A little research could probably tell me where she came from. A conversation with our ceramics teacher, perhaps, would let me know the student who created her or the year of her birth. I’m not sure I want to know.

Because I see in the girl in the garden the embodiment of San Dieguito.

She is quiet, but independent. Her very presence, and the fact that in all my time at San Dieguito she has never been damaged or toppled, speaks to the hundreds and hundreds of current students who see this fragile thing and choose to enjoy it, respect it, occasionally move it, and not make mischief.

She speaks to the desire to exist creatively. The garden was there before she was, but at some point a student artist looked at the space and thought: it needs her. Like Wallace Stevens “Jar in Tennessee” this piece of art sees the garden grow around her. She is the human drive for art manifested, not ostentatiously, but with a subtle smile.

photo 3.JPG

The girl in the garden moves me because I, like so many of us here at San Dieguito, embrace the spirit of creativity and the transformational quality of art. We are part of a school family that takes pleasure in the little kindnesses we see and contribute to the community of acceptance and unexpected generosity. That any of us are capable of being the genesis of the girl in the garden makes me thankful for the true artist and appreciative of the ambiguity that surrounds her creation.

This summer will see new construction in the part of San Dieguito where the garden is now. The girl in the garden will need a new home while bulldozers plow through and cranes build a structure that will house new art studios, ready to provide another generations of artists with the tools they need to create. That she will be back when the new building opens in 2019 I have no doubt. Ambiguity in her origin is a delight, as is certainty in the longevity of her inspiration.