Visiting Artists Challenge Students to Reflect and Connect

For the last several years, Ellis’ visiting artists program has brought local artists and creatives to the School to share their skills and perspectives with students. Funded through grants from the Ellis Parent Association, the program has welcomed Christian Hughes, a local architect and founder of Drafting Dreams, to work with Middle School students on a neighborhood architecture project and visual artist Ramon Riley, to name a few. This opportunity for students to delve into and deepen their creativity alongside working artists empowers them to visualize themselves as makers and artists as they create, question, and collaborate.
This year, the Visual Arts Department has partnered with the #notwhite Collective (NWC) to highlight artists of color and explore the theme of identity. An artist collective composed of 13 local women of color, including Ellis alumna Veronica CORPUZ ’92, the NWC creates artwork about a range of topics such as identity, power, and belonging to the global majority. Each division partnered with different artists from the collective to explore the theme in age-appropriate ways.

In the Lower School, artists Zena Ruiz and Alison Zapata led first, second, and third grade students in virtual art workshops. In these workshops, students created ancestral tributo collages that encouraged them to explore their identities and family histories. The duo spoke with students about their backgrounds, their work, and their own families in order to help them understand how relationships and family shape identities.

Lower School artists were then tasked with speaking to their own families about their family history and brought in photographs that they could use for their collages. Using a range of materials including paint, modge podge, stamps, and tissue paper along with their family photographs, students created the ancestral tributo collages on hardboard panels. They focused on different layering techniques and followed one rule: their piece couldn’t look like anyone’s else's. It had to be unique just like their family. 

“This project provided a really amazing opportunity for our students to explore their families,” shared Sarah Ceurvorst, Lower School Art Teacher. “Each student brought what they needed to it. Some used it as an opportunity to talk to their families about the past, to meet new family members, or as a vehicle to process big feelings. It was all about celebrating and highlighting the joy of what it means to be part of a family.”

In the second workshop, Lower School students participated in a kid-friendly art critique—a feedback and celebration moment for each of them to speak about their creations to their peers. Students explained their pieces to their classmates and the visiting artists and received feedback while speaking about their relatives and histories. They looked at areas for growth and discussed what they could change, and spoke about what they are proud of, a memorable way to celebrate their stories and their work.  To end the project, students are documenting their work and creating voice recordings describing their pieces to share with their families. 
For Middle School students, their work with the NWC focused on gaining a greater understanding of each other’s differences by getting to know one another’s cultures and traditions. Led by artists Sara Tang, Sarika Goulatia, and Geña Nieves, students considered the question, “what makes you, you?”  before launching into an “Excavating Your Identity” project. They called upon their burgeoning digital media skills and produced videos, drawings, and artworks for their animations to tell a story about their identity, interests, or culture. 
“The goal of this work is to have Middle School students gain a collective understanding of each other in a creative way. They were given space to interpret what identity meant to them in their videos and to determine what they wanted to share. This partnership with the #notwhite Collective also ties into the work students do with Ms. LaRosa (Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and our mission as a school,” shared Linda Tonetti Dugan, Visual Arts Department Chair and Middle School Teacher.
In the Upper School, the NWC partnered with students in Integrated Studies classes. Because real-world problem solving and collaboration are at the heart of the program, the opportunity to hear from working artists about ways they work across disciplines and the advantages and challenges of doing so was particularly applicable. Artists Liana Maneese and Carolina Loyola-Garcia spoke about their backgrounds and experiences, the tools they use to communicate visually, and how they use art as a tool for advocacy. Students then generated questions about identity, representation, storytelling, and the relationship between art and research.
“One of our goals as a department is to collaborate with artists who will inspire our students and bring them closer to the reality of making art,” shared Tim Israel, Visual Arts and Culture in Context Teacher. “We drew inspiration from the #notwhite Collective as they talked about the dominant narrative and whose stories are being told.”
This unique partnership between the Visual Arts Department and the NWC modeled to students the importance of collaboration, self-reflection, and communication in the art studio. As the artists challenged students to unearth their own narratives and passions through visual storytelling, Ellis students were able to express themselves in new ways as they asked questions, considered the stories they wanted to share, and explored their identities creatively through art. 

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