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Street Smart

Collington Square middle school students engage their community with street art

Photo: Rarah, License: N/A

Rarah

Street artist gaia helps a student at The Collington square school paste an image of herself on a vacant building.


Half a dozen kids sit on the stoop of a vacant house on Federal Avenue, down the street from Collington Square, in East Baltimore at 10 A.M. on a bright and sunny school day. Though images of truancy-court graduation ceremonies flash across a TV screen inside the front door of the Collington Square School, these kids aren’t cutting class. Instead, they’re talking about the street-art pieces they created as part of a summer program with the Creative Alliance.

Six years ago, the Creative Alliance began working with a number of Baltimore schools to help make up for cuts in arts programs.

“It was focused on skill building, helping them build up their portfolios for an art-based school,” Karen Summerville, Creative Alliance’s education coordinator, says. But this year’s class used a combination of photography and street art to allow the students to try to make an impact in their community.

“We wanted them to encourage the kids to take risks,” Summerville says. “Street art is seen as risky and negative, but we wanted to make it positive. They are beautifying the neighborhood and it allows them to send a message.”

Street art is seemingly ubiquitous in Baltimore now, not only as a reality of urban life but also as a tool for social improvement and beautification. The Open Walls project in Station North has been touted by community organizations and the mayor’s office. But because there can still be that negative association, it was important to teach the students about the history of street art and what it means.

“Remember when we first started talking about street art?” asks Ryan Stevenson, one of the photographers working with the students. (Disclosure: Stevenson frequently shoots for City Paper as “Rarah.”)

“You’re talking about that man with the hole in the wall.”

“And where was that, do you remember?” asks Amelia Szpiech, a recent MICA grad and photographer, who also taught the students this summer.

“There was a war,” a young girl named Deveonna Pierce says. “Maybe he wanted to go to the beach but he couldn’t.”

“And why not?” Szpiech asks.

“Because there is a war.”

“And do you remember the artist?” Stevenson inquires.

Silence.

“His name is Banksy.”

The kids all smile and nod as they recall the image and the name of one of the most famous street artists in the world. But they are here to talk about their own photography-based projects.

“When we taught photos in the winter, street art came up in a direct connection with photography,” Szpiech says. “Then we saw it was a way to let the kids be an important part of the neighborhood.”

So, this summer, they set out to combine the two, using wheatpaste to hang printed images on the boarded-up windows of derelict houses.

They set up a photography studio in the classroom and, as Stevenson puts it, “gave them tons of experience of photos.”

“I learned how to work a camera,” says Marquise Lowrey. “How to steady it, how to zoom, how to take good pictures.”

Then they went to photograph monuments all over town. Next, they asked the students that age-old question: What do you want to be when you grow up? But when they got the standard answers—doctor, teacher, lawyer—they asked the students what people in these professions would look like. They dressed the students in adult-sized clothes to “insinuate what they would grow into,” Stevenson says. With the help of Szpiech and Stevenson, the kids photographed each other in these overgrown outfits, heads held high with pride, looking out into the distance of the future.

The Collington Kids (as they were known by their art teachers) all chose the base of the monument they felt best suited their desires for the future and their images were set upon the pedestal. “The pictures are about yourself, so you can express your feelings,” a boy named Christopher Yancey says.

“It shows who you are and what you want to be,” Deveonna adds through a wad of chewing gum and a big grin. “It helps you be who you want to be.”

Finally, one day in August, when all of the images had been printed as 3-by-7-feet black-and-white images, the renowned local street artist and curator of the Open Walls project, Gaia, came out to spend a day helping them hang the pictures on the boarded windows of abandoned houses.

“We didn’t find out who owned the buildings, but we asked the neighbors who live beside them, and they loved it,” Stevenson said.

“They’d come out and spend the whole time with us, having fun with the kids,” Szpiech adds. One neighbor came out when they were looking at the pictures, and a shy little girl ran up and threw her arms around the woman’s waist.

There is still plenty of debate about the overall effects of street art on at-risk communities. But here, in East Baltimore, it has helped each of these students share a more meaningful connection with their community and gain a better understanding of themselves. And like adult artists, some are already looking forward to the next project.

“I want to do it in color,” Jade Taylor says. “And I want to put some of these in the magazine I’m going to make.”

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