I recently saw an exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville entitled “The Birth of Impressionism” that visually chronicled the evolutionary process, the critical questions, as well as the outright revolutionary transgressions in the world of painting that gave us Impressionism. And, while it is now recognized and sold on everything from coffee mugs and calendars to umbrellas and t-shirts, Impressionism was a revolution that shook hundreds of years of practice and assumptions about art and its relationship with the artist as maker and the viewer as consumer. Among many other things, it democratized art.
As painters sought to capture a moment, a sense, an honesty rather than to narrate a story or promote a religious or social ideal; as they focused on a more common reality (often criticized as base) among the artist and his audience; and as they moved from the confines of the studio to the outdoors (en plein air), they sparked a new spirit in art that fueled Modernism’s evolution and continues to resonate into the 21st century.
When you look at a Monet landscape at sunrise, you can feel the warmth of the sun’s glow against the cool air coming off of the water as fishermen begin another day’s work.
When you let your eyes wander across a social scene by Renoir, you can feel the energy and hear the sounds of the place and sense what it is like to be there.
And, moving to Van Gogh and post-Impressionism, you can find yourself melancholy, uncertain, or otherwise unsettled by an energy you cannot seem to place, but feels very familiar.
Doing what art does, it got me thinking: what would it look like if Monet was around and set up his easel outside of schools to capture the morning scene as our students arrive? What spirit would he convey? Would it invite us in?
What if Renoir set up shop in our hallways between classes or perhaps during lunch? What energy would he capture? Would we want to be there?
What if Van Gogh sat in our classrooms? How would he twist and turn his strokes, morph his shapes, and structure his light to capture that familiar, but often unnameable sense of what it looks and feels like for students to be in our classrooms? Would we be unsettled?
Of course, the next obvious question is: why would we need a bunch of dead artists to capture this for us? What if our students could set up their own easels and capture the emotion and spirit of these moments for themselves? What would they paint? What color palette would they choose? Would they have the lightness and joy of a Renoir, or the ominous psychology of a Van Gogh? Would they capture the sleepy hopefulness of a Monet sunrise or the weighty somberness of one of his sunsets? If they were not painters, perhaps they could just draw or otherwise capture their sensibilities through words, spoken or written. What does it feel like for our students to be in our schools?
Beyond the test scores and attendance and graduation data, how does our environment, our school climate, that impression of being in a place and at a time, promote the success of our young people?
Alternatively, how does our school climate support and promote teacher success as well? What would they paint, draw or write to capture their own impressions?
Like the creative revolutionaries who set the stage for and gave birth to Impressionism, how do we evolve education, ask the critical questions, and have the urgency and fearlessness of transgression in order to truly revolutionize every school and every classroom? How do we redefine our notions of creator and consumer in order to democratize education and to co-create, capture, and share our impression of a positive school climate?
I often write about things in my blog that move me intellectually, challenge me politically, concern me socially, or inspire me personally or professionally. For this blog, I am writing about something that is all of these things. I am writing about someone who captures all of this and more through the power of his words; a young man who at 17 years old moves my spirit by his presence and moves my soul through his poetry and performance. And, I am writing about him both in acknowledgement of his unique artistry and also out of the belief, and I know one that he shares, that there are so many more Sebastian Jones’ out there - at his own Hunters Lane High School, and at every other school around the country. (A performance and interview are linked below.)
But, unlike so many of those others, Sebastian found Youth Speaks Nashville – his talent was there, his spirit and soul were there, his words were even there – but he needed to develop the vehicle to share them with the world and the support to do so meaningfully and truthfully. His vehicle is spoken-word poetry. What happens, then, for Sebastian, or any other young person like Sebastian, when this vehicle is never found, this spirit contained, this soul smothered, these powerful words muted? I believe we see the effects every day in our schools and our communities as young people search for meaning and voice and find hollowness and frustration.
Their search is part of their natural, biological growth and development, but the hollowness and frustration are created by us; by friends, families, schools, and communities that too often fail to inspire, fail to support, and are too inflexible to meet them on their path, but instead insist on forcing them onto ours. Even so, we know that when we meet young people where they are and capture and celebrate their skills and experiences, we build the will and relationships for our paths to align and our aspirations to coalesce. We adults and leaders of systems just need to find the courage and creativity to make it happen.
To be honest, anything I say about Sebastian’s work has only the potential to cheapen the experience of hearing him “spit” his poetry. So, I won’t describe it or summarize it. I can only share it with his permission. In doing so, however, I hope we all can share in Sebastian’s poetic liberation and perhaps find a touch of our own in the experience. I hope that as we walk through our schools and communities we look around and wonder which other young people have this inside just waiting to come out. Sebastian’s life and work at 17 are a shining example of the ways that the arts can open the doors to personal liberation, lifelong learning, and our collective consciousness.
Surely, this poetry is the essence of what it means for us to be human; this poet a guiding light on the path toward a stronger self and more inspired schools and communities.
originally posted in 2011