It's always this time of year that brings me back to Evanston, Illinois. Evanston is where I started my career as an Art Teacher at the wonderful Washington School, a community like none other I've witnessed.
in 2001, the year I started, Washington did not look like this. The largest elementary school in the district was overgrown with vegetation and was known as the "red headed stepchild". My first year was the pilot year for a TWI (Two way immersion) dual language program. I soon realized there were many people in the community that were not supportive of this idea, worried it would change the way their school community functioned. Well, in my opinion it certainly changed the community in what I saw in amazement, for the better. Over the years, Washington truly became an enigma. The population was multicultural, and ranged from the lowest to the highest socio economic status. What was amazing is that EVERYONE worked hard to work together, to learn from each other, and to create a harmonious atmosphere where everyone's heritage was celebrated. We'd always laugh a little about it, after a long 2 hour hot holiday sing tapping into everyone's cultures.
The third Saturday in May every spring, this is where you'd find me at the Young Evanston Artists Festival (Y.E.A). A day where everyone Pre K-12, both public and private schools would put displays, and have musical performances to celebrate the arts. Now, I'll admit, in my early 20's when I started, the thought of giving up a Saturday seemed pretty unreasonable. Over time though, and with the help of many parents and my husband, we'd put on quite a display.
One hilarious memory that my husband and I always joke about one of the many times he was roped into hanging work at 8 am with me. We had a large display of these George Rodrique inspired blue dogs and Greg was on a ladder on the other side of display from where I was working and I saw a woman from the nearby halfway house coming towards him. I held my breath for a second, and then I heard the lady right up next to Greg. "What, no cats?" She went angrily on her merry way disappointed that there weren't any cats, but it's something we say to each other often. To give you an idea of a full display, and how we used every square inch, watch this video.
One of the keys to including more students into Y.E.A. was to bring murals that the kids had worked on together. Creating long lasting murals together is such a fantastic experience with kids, and even though they don't get to take them home, they always remember the feeling they got when working as a team, and loved to revisit them when returning back to school. Below is my greatest accomplishment in the mural department. We received a grant from Artsonia for a contest we won, and with the $5,000, I made it my mission to create a mosaic that every student helped with to make this ugly wall into a masterpiece. Mosaics are such a blast to make, and the effect of mirror sparkling in the sun is magical. I also got to ride on this crane during install!
The parents here are so amazing, if you had a vision, well, they were going to help make it happen. I wanted to bring all of these to Y.E.A. with me, but was too afraid of damaging them and also breaking my back to get there. So, no problem, one dad who was a professional photographer took pictures, and another dad printed them on fabric for me so we could display them on the windows at Y.E.A (you can see behind my picture up top).
One of the reasons Y.E.A. became so wonderful, is because of this crazy gal right here. Carla Kenney-Phillips hired me in 2001. Her family owns Nuts on Clark in the city, and she would bring giant bags of carmel/cheese popcorn to all of our meetings, which I would lecture myself on the way and say I'd skip it this time, and never could. Carla is old school, she knows people, and she knows how to build relationships and get support for the arts. She was a wonder to me when I started. This picture doesn't really do her justice because she was always in a wild fur coat (my favorite was a flowing full length purple number), and high heeled sneakers. She can stash pencils in her hair, and always finishes sentences "and all like that". She is retired now, but her legacy continues as she serves on the board of Y.E.A. with the founder of Y.E.A., Harvey Pranian.
Working in District 65, I started out young and naive, and had no idea what the impact of this experience would have on me. During my time, I had a student who called me Cupcake, another call me out all the time for not being married with kids (she actually said "Oh, you eat soup alone in the dark?), pointing out my flaws (One of your teeth's behind the other one!), and yet I wouldn't have traded it for anything. If you want to go to work with the most honest group of people possible, become a teacher. It was the best and most humbling time of my life. Working with kids will keep you young, and I miss adding the stories of my teaching days to my memory bank. I've never met such a fine group of dedicated teachers so committed to this idea of community. I'm so happy knowing that Washington is no longer the red headed step child, but thriving as one of the most highly regarded schools with one of the most highly regarded Principals. The grounds are now filled with trees and flowers and learning gardens put in by the school community. HGTV has got nothing on Washington!
My custodian at Washington, Mr. Edwards taught me one of my favorite life philosophies, and that is to work smarter not harder. I think of him every time I say it, which is often.
Y.E.A. Festival this year is on May 17th, the same day that we re-open. I will be at the shop, but part of my heart will always be in Evanston on the 3rd Saturday in May.