School is winding to a close, and kids around the valley are bringing home report cards, having end-of-year performances, and shopping for graduation gear. At McLane High School, Art Venture students are also marking the end of an artistic endeavor that’s spanned an entire school year. The students have been studying the life and works of poet Jimmy Santiago Baca and last Thursday, they showed the fruits of their labor to the man himself.
I stopped by Arte Américas to see the show (and to eat some tacos from Tacos Mazatlan). The students really dug deep with their creations, and moving images of struggle and overcoming obstacles dotted the museum’s lawn. Jimmy Santiago Baca was there too, signing books and hanging out with the students before giving a speech.
About Jimmy Santiago Baca
An honored poet, Mr. Baca’s life is also one of tragedy and struggle. Abandoned by his parents at the age of two, he ended up in maximum security prison in his early 20s. Although prison was difficult, it was there he learned to read and eventually started writing poetry.
His poetry was a positive outlet for him; he traded poems for cigarettes in prison. Eventually, it landed him a book deal and a new perspective on life. Now he’s an award-winning poet who travels the country telling his story and hoping to inspire kids to choose expression instead of crime.
The Process of Artistic Expression
It often takes some research to create art that reflects an idea. First, McLane students watched “A Place to Stand,” a documentary on Baca’s life, and read his poems and excerpts of his books. They then wrote essays to express their thoughts on incarceration and what it means to be in prison. Finally, they took their ideas from their studies and made art.
The types of expression varied by class and focus. Some students created drawers (the drawers representing confinement) and used mixed media including wood, spray paint, and found objects. Other classes expressed their ideas using scratch boards, performance art, and even puppets. A common theme in many of the artwork was the idea that a person (not a circumstance) controls their life.
In teacher Jessica Ketchum’s class, students created marionettes that represented something others might not know or see about them. As Mrs. Ketchum explained, “Marionettes are controlled by their creator first. The creator gives them life via their imagination, ingenuity and craftsmanship. Now the students are the owners of their marionettes, which represent a part of them they wish to control. As the creator, they give life to their ideas and in turn, they have the power to control them.”
Speaking from Experience
In addition to the visual art, spoken word poetry and rap was performed during the evening. According to McLane English teacher Donnie Garcia, most of the students’ poems were inspired by their own personal struggles. Said Garcia, “Our worlds inform our words.” One student spoke of losing a parent at the age of one, when his father was deported to El Salvador.
Similarly, many McLane students have had experiences that have caused them to decide to rise above their circumstances. Much like Mr. Santiago Baca, they’ve powerfully told their stories through the arts and have found beauty in their experiences. It was truly an evening of shared struggles and accomplishments.
The evening ended with Mr. Santiago Baca reminding the students to take charge of their life experiences and create poetry and art with them. He said that the words that came to him as he watched performances were, “Let me be more you than me.”
Art Venture: Voices For The Voiceless
Art Venture is a program with the goal of giving “a voice to the voiceless through the power of visual storytelling.” Over the years, students have explored issues ranging from civil rights to water shortages in East Porterville.
The program promotes idea that we all deserve to be heard. I appreciated hearing the voices of prisoners and those affected by prison. Even though I was comfortably eating a taco in a beautiful museum courtyard, it felt like I was doing something important just by being present.
You won’t want to miss future Art Venture shows. They’re inspiring and challenging (and often there’s food). We told you about this one on our FresYes Instagram account. However, to find out more about these events in advance, you can follow Art Venture Academy on Facebook here.
For more information about what Jimmy Santiago Baca is up to (hopefully he’ll be back to Fresno someday), check out his Facebook page here.
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