Thursday, May 5, 2016

Against Tough Odds, a High School Arts Program Fosters Success

By Miranda Spivak in the NYT, full article here.

DISTRICT HEIGHTS, Md. — Inside a crumbling school building in a neighborhood dotted by pawn shops, fast-food restaurants and strip malls, a security guard is shouting into the girls’ restroom to make sure there are no problems. Outside, a gaggle of boys is smoking. Trash overflows from a bin just beyond the school’s fence.
Oblivious to the grim surroundings, young artists are hard at work inside the building, Suitland High School. Those artists are eager participants in a rigorous, four-year academic and arts program that has survived budget cuts, neighborhood violence and a constant shortage of art supplies. Although the program, the Center for Visual and Performing Arts, founded in 1986, has had dwindling enrollment, it has been a crucible for emerging artists, many of them African-Americans, and some now rising to national prominence.
Sam Vernon, Suitland class of ’05, is represented in three current shows in New York City, including one at the Brooklyn Museum. Eric N. Mack, Suitland ’05, is preparing a show that opens in the fall in Paris. The two artists said that the world inside the Annex, as the arts center is known, was where it all began — where they spent up to four hours a day with art teachers, all practicing professionals. Close friends since ninth grade at Suitland, both Ms. Vernon and Mr. Mack went on to Cooper Union and later Yale. Several of this year’s Suitland graduates are also headed to well-regarded college arts and design programs, many with substantial financial aid. Among them is Malik Mills, 17, who managed to produce finely detailed pen-and-ink drawings even as his family members faced eviction from their home. “My photography teacher was the first person to introduce Conceptual art to me,” he said.
Recalling the rigor of Ms. Wilson’s drawing class, Ms. Vernon said, “we were made to draw straight lines from one side of an 18-by-24 page to another, for two or three weeks before we could even go on to observe objects and still lifes.” Students receive a grounding in the basics in their first two years, before choosing a concentration, and there are frequent critique sessions.
“The teacher-student connection is very deep and very long term, and helps us develop and flourish as artists,” said Yaa Cunningham, 17, who will attend the University of Rochester in the fall and plans to study art.
Ms. Vernon, 28, recalled the program as “this magical thing.” She creates eclectic collages and designs with often subtle messages about the African-American experience. Last year,, which focuses on youth culture and design, tabbed her as one of 15 young black artists “making waves in the art world.”

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