Beautiful just like me.

She didn’t think she’d enjoy this after school class but it was the only option available, besides homework hour.  She couldn’t stand the idea of more school work at the end of her already long exhausting day. Besides, all she wanted to do was read books.

Mari’s face is youthful but not lacking strength. Her smile is broad and giving, bearing bright straight teeth. Her brow can furrow and scowl and her stride is wide and confident. Mari’s spirit is almost as vibrant as her headscarves and flowing bejeweled dresses. She has an unwavering love and respect for her family and most of all her father. She is not one to hide her feelings or withhold her opinions. Her values are strong and inherent in the way she relates to others. She’s a playful soul and eager to connect.  I was excited to have her energy in my class.

Mari is an 8th grader at a south end middle school known for its “struggling youth”, drop out rates and low test scores.  This is the third middle school she’s attended in the past three years not due to her behavior but because her parents could no longer afford a private education. When speaking about her move, Mari expresses her respect for her parent’s decision and is happy to live so close to her new school. She walks home at the end of the day with her nose in a book.

In this after school art class we were exploring the world of altered books. Using collage materials, glue and paint I was inviting my class to tell their story on the pages of an old book. To help recall the many chapters in our lives, we wrote and reflected. Mari spoke passionately but briefly about her family and her life as one out of many siblings.  She was thoughtful about other people’s stories and was known for drawing dynamic conclusions for us. She’d speak boldly about lessons her father would tell her, regurgitating powerful phrases about equality, spirituality, kindness and peace. She’d often say things like “Beauty is within” or  “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.”  This particular class was small and intimate. We had come to know each other well, very quickly.  I was eager to see what kinds of deep rooted nuggets of knowledge we were going to unearth in this classroom.

Over the course of developing our compositions and preparing our books Mari had expressed that she wanted her book to be about her father. As her teacher, I was proud she had declared so boldly what story she wanted to tell. As we applied medium to our books, paintings flourished, collages became complex and deep metaphors broke through. The students thought critically when using new materials and tried daring techniques in order to tell their stories. Mari on the other hand became overwhelmingly fascinated with mixing paints. She spent hours experimenting with color theory and developing dynamic color schemes. I saw that this play was valuable to Mari and I encouraged her to go deeper. When she noticed that other students had nearly completed stories, she panicked. Her exploration had wasted time and those colors had noting to do with her father. Her peers shouted about how her bursting color pallet and how it shouldn’t be wasted.  That those deep greens and yellows were perfect representations of her playful and colorful spirit. That maybe she should let go of her previous composition and make way for something unexpected and new. Mari grumbled but eventually took their advice. She applied her paints in stripes and waves, using her brush in new ways. It was obvious that painting abstractly was soothing to her because as she applied her colors, bold thoughts and reflections came spewing out of her.

Mari spoke about how it was difficult to be the only girl in her family. That being her father’s only daughter made her special but also set her aside from her siblings. She lacked the independence she longer for and often found that her father’s expectations of her were vastly different than her brothers. She felt that just because she was a girl didn’t mean that she should be treated differently than anyone else. Mari started drawing conclusions about how she was proud to be a girl being raised in such a household. She thought it helped her to learn be bold, outspoken and passionate. The group worked silently and listened to Mari and her epiphanies. Her reflections were powerful and inspired us all to look deeper at ourselves.

Mari’s finished book spilled out dark greys and blues, deep purples and maroons. The stripes stretched across the pages and swooped over the spine of the book. Although Mari lacked a lineal/literal story, her book spoke loudly and clearly about her depth and passion. We envied the content Mari had managed to apply to her book but she had trouble seeing it in that light. No matter how much we swooned and raved about how unique it was, she remained disappointed. To the artist this piece was not what it was meant to be. She declared that this piece would not be shown in the showcase.

The other students starting writing their Artist Statements and Mari stubbornly didn’t participate.  Arms folded, chin up and back to her book, I asked her to forget about the statement and talk to me about the book and how it came to be. I asked her to suspend judgment and to really think about the process, the artistic process. This is what she said and what eventually turned into her statement.

“I made this book because I don’t have a favorite color. I enjoy mixing colors. I used the colors Red, Blue, Yellow, Black and White to create all the colors in this book. I mixed the colors until I liked them.  I mixed them till they looked nice. I think these colors are beautiful just like me.”

She named her piece “Passionate Colors”. The showcase opened and her book was presented along side everyone else’s. When she noticed her book a bashful grin shot across her face. I asked her how she felt and she responded proudly that she loved her book. That is was powerful and different, just like she was.

It is always encouraging to watch others walk the tumultuous path of art making. I’m honored to have been a part of Mari’s exploration and declaration. Her open creative spirit and courage to claim was an inspiration for me  and everyone around her. I know I will walk with her story on my path. Thank you Mari.