Remember back in school when your class would go on a field trip to the art museum? This year, the city-wide arts happening Converge 45 is bringing the museum field trip to school.
The King School Museum of Contemporary Art — like all great museums, it has a name that styles down to a cool acronym, KSMOCA — opens its annual art fair. The program’s usual home, Martin Luther King Jr. School, is getting a new roof this summer, so the fair will be staged at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.
Walking in during installation, the first thing you notice is adults and kids at work, constructing the short, 6-foot-tall walls — kid-sized — to hang art for the fair.
“Part of our idea was that we would include the students in the processes of what it took to run a museum. They get to not only see the work as an audience, but they also are around to help install work too, to paint walls, come up with label copy,” said Harrell Fletcher, the museum’s co-director and founder. When the museum opens Friday afternoon, they’ll help out as docents, taking people around and explaining the works.
Once you acclimate to the drill noise, you start to notice what else is going on all around the room: some two dozen kids, paired off with a who’s who list of Portland’s contemporary art scene.
Artist Amanda Leigh Evans, a co-curator with KSMOCA, showed us around: In one corner a student traced plant drawings she made with a team from Portland Tropical Gardens for their fair booth. Eric Long from the new queer curatorial collective First Brick was deep in conversation with another girl on a curatorial project. In a room off the main hall, musician and sound artist Amenta Abioto and one of the kids were bent over a computer, working on some new beats. The girls read aloud from an African folk tale while Abioto ran her voice through a looping device, creating a lilting pattern of words as the basis for the track.
Elsewhere, portrait artist Samantha Wall and student Michael Esperanza put finishing touches on a couple of portraits in graphite and ink. The graphite drawing, Esperanza explained, delivered a more lifelike depiction of their subject, a friend of his from class.
But, he added, “The ink drawing is really fun, it doesn’t take as long, you get to play around with it.”
Using alcohol and rubber cement, they manipulated the ink into dramatic swirls and contrasts. “You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen but you get to move it around like you want it to be,” Esperanza said.
The resulting effect is dramatic: a mix of realistic silhouettes and features blurred in a way that can convey achingly vivid emotion … or sometimes nightmarish expressions of pain.
“You should see it when we draw in the eyes,” Esperanza said with a grin. “When we did this at our school, she started off drawing just graphite and pencils, and we started doing this with the ink. It was scary because you can see [the eyes] following you, looking at you from all angles.”
The art fair will also include work by other big names like Brooklyn-based Byron Kim, alongside Portland’s own Malia Jensen and Victor Maldonado. Folk art hero Lonnie Holley will perform and work with the kids this Saturday.
Founder Harrell Fletcher’s work is shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum. Just after grad school he was part of a team that was working with kids at an elementary in Oakland, California.
“One of the things back then that we realized [was] we had really total freedom, we weren’t art teachers,” Fletcher said. “We could go around to the classrooms and say, ‘Who would you like to not have in your class today?’ to the teachers And they would send us all of the kids that were giving them the most trouble, 5 to 10 students who were having trouble in normal academic setting, where they had to sit there and listen and function in a certain way. We gave them a different kind of educational experience.”
Since then, Harrell Fletcher has become an associate professor at Portland State. And he chairs the school’s MFA program for social practice, in which artists do participatory projects in the public as opposed to working in studios. About seven years ago, the principal at a school in rapidly-gentrifying Northeast Portland got in touch with Fletcher about using some extra space in the school, Martin Luther King Jr. PK–8, for art. One project led to another. Grad students in the Social Practice program help out at KSMOCA (including co-curators Roz Crews and Amanda Leigh Evans). And one of Fletcher’s colleagues at Portland State, Lisa Jarrett, got involved.
“MLK Jr. School is a shifting demographic,” Jarrett said. “Because of gentrification, many of the children at this school live farther away. They may have been displaced to east Portland for example, or Gresham.”
Jarrett can relate. As a kid, her family moved around a lot, and, like most of the students at King, she didn’t have a lot of opportunity to connect with artists, much less artists who, like herself, were people of color.
“I think it really does make a difference,” Jarrett said. “Who’s around you growing up, in terms of possibility.”
After the art fair, which will be on view through this weekend, Harrell Fletcher and Lisa Jarrett, along with curators Amanda Leigh Evans and Roz Crews, will continue their planning for fall. Exhibits rotate on a quarterly basis, with artists doing lectures and workshops with the kids.
Jarrett said the project informs both the kids and adults involved.
“It changes the way I think about things,” Jarrett said. “It’s not me telling them what something should be or is. We’re leveling out the playing field and saying that what you think is just as valid as what I think. Watching them grow over the years is really kind of been an amazing experience.”
They have bigger ambitions. Some of the kids at MLK Jr. will be headed to a middle school in years to come. And the team feels there’s more they can do with other schools in the neighborhood.