On a recent Monday, visual artist Colleen Comer visited Mobile County Training School’s eighth grade class to engage them in an hour and a half art session. Her class is one in a series conducted under the Mobile Museum of Art’s “Who I Am” project, which will last four weeks and cover a wide variety of artistic mediums.
Elizabet Elliott, curator of programs at the museum and a Fairhope native, is no stranger to art.
“I was a painter for many years. I started showing when I was 16 or 17 and did pretty much exclusively that until my early 20s,” she said.
Although beginning in painting, Elliott, a graduate of Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, and Goddard College in Port Townsend, Washington, quickly developed an interest in other artistic mediums, particularly those combining different art forms in meaningful ways.
“I found that what really drove me to art in the first place was a love of storytelling. I started exploring lots of different mediums and methodologies as a vehicle for telling a story rather than fetishizing the medium for the medium’s sake. I discovered that I am less interested in putting pigment on a canvas than what conversation you can start with whatever you are using,” Elliott said.
It was this intense interest in using art to tell narratives that led her to revisit the “Who I Am” project professionally.
“I’ve done similar projects in the past and the museum has done similar projects in the past. It’s a pretty effective way to reach this age group.”
One difference between this year’s programs and those done previously is the age of the students.
“We upped the age demographic because I feel like a program about identity is really a lot more powerful in early adolescence. … Making decisions about the music they like and what they’re going to wear and what their haircut is — these things are really charged and important and powerful in the eighth grade. What your haircut is will make or break you. We wanted to give kids that are already dealing with these issues and making these decisions a broader perspective about meaning, about identity,” Elliott said.
The Mobile County Training School was chosen out of several in Mobile County that have been forced to cut down or close their art programs due to lack of funding.
“It’s one of the struggling schools and it’s been on the list of failing schools in Mobile,” Elliott said. “It’s vital for community organizations and institutions like us to help contribute and create bridges in for the community and do projects that are relevant.”
The school was chosen in part because of the cultural history associated with Africatown and the surrounding area.
“Demographically and geographically these kids are in an area where identity is a very meaningful and loaded topic. The history of the area is tumultuous. These kids are living in a situation where family history and heritage has a much more loaded meaning than your average youth,” Elliott said. “They are already having to deal with much larger ideas about inequity and history and socioeconomics and politics because that all ties in to where their family comes from, how they got to this place in the world, and who it is that they imagine themselves to be in the future.”
The funding for the program has been provided by County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, and the program would not have been possible without it.
The program’s curriculum is divided into four sections, one for each week: visual art, creative writing, music and multimedia, and the final project.
“In addition to museum staff, we’ve hired four artists — one visual artist, Colleen Comer; a writer and performer, Alfred Ward; two multimedia artists, Duane Knight and Rufus Ducote,” Elliott said.
Each week’s curriculum revolves around the central theme of identity and its relation to autobiography.
“As a group, we sat down and designed the curriculum so that each piece follows in logical order … The students are actually going to be designing the book cover as if they’ve written their own autobiography already and it’s going to be published … By the time they get to creative writing, they’ve already started thinking in an autobiographical mode, how to represent themselves. The music class is structured around the movie of your life or your own personal theme song,” Elliott said.
This week is not the first encounter the students have had with the folks at the museum. The project began last year when the museum hosted a tour and exhibition for the students.
“At the end of the year, they came to the museum and we designed tours of our permanent collection and visiting exhibition galleries around the idea of identity,” Elliott said. “They had a reading program over the summer where they were asked to do research on their family history and heritage and to investigate and collect evidence of old family photos.”
After the four weeks of classes are over, the museum is going to host a reception to commemorate the program’s achievements and allow the students to express themselves in a final exhibition.
“We’re going to put up all their work and we’re also going to provide a stage for the students that want to perform. … The kids themselves design a final project that they feel articulates who they are or who they want to be. … They have multiple avenues and they can use all of the tools we give them in combination or one at a time to say what they’re interested in saying about themselves,” Elliott explained.
Asked about the ultimate goal of the program, Elliott said it is to inspire the students to engage with their understanding of their own identity and to use this understanding to fulfill their potential.
“This program’s ultimate goal is to empower youth to not only understand better their heritage and family history but to be able to incorporate that into an inventive and ambitious mode of being in the world. We want them to imagine themselves as something great and something important and we also want them to take ownership of who it is they are going to become.”