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ARTifacts: Kids Respond to a World in Crisis

Kids Respond to a World in Crisis


Nedw York City firemen on a front door stoop downtown near the twin towers

Photograph by Sam Obernhaus, Firemen Downtown NY 9.12.01, 14"x11"

2001"It would be premature--even presumptuous--to claim that after a half a year, we can select works which show the effects of 9/11 on young people. Instead, they have offered to share their first reactions--the immediate "Ohhh" as you catch yourself from falling. The exhibition is full of that will to cry out, catch hold, stand up, and set off again. But beyond that survival there is a kind of imagination, informed, but not scarred, by the events of September 11th. It is an imagination that is very much alive, but newly respectful, deliberate and shared. -- Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, from the catalog for ARTifacts: Kids Respond to a World in Crisis

The nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists and Writers is a network of arts, education, and community leaders with the mission to encourage creative expression and artistic achievement in junior and senior high school students nationwide. The group's signature project is the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards, which, since 1923, have recognized exceptional achievement by young artists. Writer Joyce Carol Oates, photographer Richard Avedon, and actor-filmmaker Robert Redford are only some of the master artists who were first recognized with a Scholastic award.

In 2001, 14 works by Scholastic Art and Writing Awards winners were on loan to a firm located in the World Trade Center towers. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as the Alliance notified the affected artists of the loss of their artwork, the organization noticed that many New York City young people were making art in response to the devastation. The Alliance, in turn, responded with a group exhibit of post-9/11 work by young artists as "an honest, moving, and beautiful memorial to the tragic events of September 11th."

The Alliance received a Chairman's Extraordinary Action Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the exhibition and its companion catalog. From 2000 pieces of art and writing submitted by local schools, a panel of arts education experts and artists curated a 75-piece exhibition. ARTifacts: Kids Respond to a World in Crisis comprised a variety of artistic media, including photographs, paintings, drawings, sculpture, poems, essays, journalism, musical scores, and a play. The spectrum of artists included first-time artists as well as advanced students.

ARTifacts was arranged thematically, reflecting the array of emotions explored in the work. Groupings range from "Weirdo Day: September 11, 2001" to "September 12: The Dust Settles and Life Goes On" to "What Makes America Great: Politics, Opinions and Dissenting Voices."

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Selections from the exhibit were displayed at the 2002 National Association of Elementary School Principals National Conference in San Antonio, TX, the Diane Von-Furstenberg Studio Gallery and the Center for Arts Education Gallery in New York City, NY, and Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (The entire exhibit was also available on Scholastic's Web site.) The New York Voice noted that, "the exhibited work demonstrates--in extraordinarily moving and often stunning terms--how tri-state children have coped with the tragedy and used creative expression to communicate their feelings and thoughts."

Many of the young people who submitted work for the project had participated in one of several arts programs targeting New York City Public Schools students. Through Young Artists New York, poet Nadine Mozon and visual artist Gustavo Asto worked with students at the High School of Fashion Industries to create self-portrait collages and poems. At PS 140, under the auspices of Artists Space, playwright Annie Bien and her middle schoolers constructed Tibetan-inspired prayer flags "with our words of comfort and encouragement to send to other people like us around the world, and also for us to keep as reminders."

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At other schools, the projects were self-generated. Stuyvesant High School teachers Ilena George and Annie Thoms worked with students to write, "with their eyes," a series of monologues culled from interviews with people on their experiences with 9/11. Lauren Van Hafften-Schick, a senior at the Bronx High School of Science, designed a t-shirt--based on the ubiquitous "I Love New York" slogan-- generating $5,361 in sales, which she donated to the United Way's September 11th Emergency Fund.

Some of the artwork was created by students displaced from school buildings because of their proximity to Ground Zero. At P.S. 234, an elementary school in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood, students were moved to two schools before returning to their home space in February 2002. The students documented the journey in artwork and poems; one youngster wrote, "Move the windows!/Move the floors!/Bring them through the rooms/And out the doors!//We're going for another move/And that is that."

Half a decade later, the collected expression of these young people still reverberates. As artist Kit White, one of the exhibit's curators, wrote in the catalog, "What came to light . . .was the quiet realization that we carry the world within us always and it reveals itself through each mark we make, each emotion we register. Learning to see is the progenitor to learning to make. What that sight gives us is the recognition that all forms of expression are part of our collective conversation, and every mark is a portrait--as long as we are open to see it."