When I think back to my middle school art classroom, I remember a place of solace: a warm, creative environment in which experimentation was encouraged and I could seek respite from the various social and academic complexities of life as a pre-teen. While I can’t recall any of the art projects that my class did in particular, I do remember entering class feeling self-conscious and leaving class feeling restored and creative.
In the pandemic, art classrooms continue to be a place of safety, nurture, and risk-taking, despite the many adjustments that have had to be made in order to accommodate art-making in socially distanced and remote settings. True to the ethos of creativity that they cultivate in their classrooms, both physical and virtual, teachers and administrators of the Middletown Public School system have leaned into flexibility and adaptation in their art curricula to continue to provide a safe and engaging learning environment for all grade levels, from kindergarten through high school.
Last Saturday, March 13, the Middletown Public School System presented their 40th Annual Art Exhibition, sponsored by the Middletown Board of Education, the Middletown Public Schools Cultural Council, and the University’s Center for the Arts. The exhibition was live streamed on the Middletown Stream YouTube channel, where it is still available for viewing.
Middletown Public School Superintendent Dr. Michael Conner spoke to the collective effort that went into creating this year’s exhibition, a full year into a global pandemic.
“One year later, we have made significant progress [dealing with COVID-19], and when we talk about one year later, the 40th annual art show, despite it being virtually on the platform that we have to display the artwork of our students, [I commend] the hard work of our teachers, [Chief of School Operations and Communications] Mr. [Marco] Gaylord for putting this on, and just our families and our students,” Conner said. “It really shows not only the artistic and aesthetic side of our students, but the resilience and the perseverance of our teachers and this cohort.”
K-12 Visual Art Department Head Julie Shvetz also spoke to the ways in which teachers and students have worked hard to adapt to the constantly changing public health conditions in Middletown.
“This year we were met with unique challenges as a department,” Shvetz said. “Our teachers took on the situation with dedication and determination to ensure our students were able to have an equitable experience in the arts, whether they were hybrid or remote students in our schools.”
Shvetz cited the public school system’s distribution of home art kits to students in order to facilitate remote learning across the district and said that she is proud of all the art that the students created.
After the opening remarks from Conner, Shvetz, and Gaylord, the exhibition shifted to presentations by teachers at each grade level, with photo displays of their students’ work arranged in pages, juxtaposed over a virtual gallery graphic: imagine an art museum, but two dimensional. The art teachers, who appeared as bitmojis in the opening slides of their classes’ presentations, took a few moments to present their respective classes and the different projects in which their students engaged this semester. Teachers shared personal anecdotes from the year, poetry about the art classroom, and quotes from their students about the experience of making visual art during this time.
“Education professionals like to say that 2nd graders stop learning to read and start reading to learn, and that’s what you’ll see in our second grade gallery,” said Bielefield Elementary School 2nd Grade Art Teacher Ari Kubie in their presentation. “You’ll see our students blossoming and really coming into their own as artists. This year, educators across the district adjusted our curriculum to include an increased emphasis on social, emotional learning. We know that the arts are an important tool to help students process emotions and to build resilience, which means that art class was especially important this year.”
Middletown High School Sculpture, Pottery, and General Art teacher Kimberly Holliman discussed the various types of artwork her classes have focused on this year.
“I’ve found a real happiness in using my role to help students find success in the arts,” Holliman said. “In pottery and sculpture this year, our art show highlights pieces focused on creative and technical skills, including wire and plaster figure-making modeled after artist Alberto Giacometti. We finished these pieces with their own paint and design.”
While the presentation highlighted student creativity and gave teachers a chance to speak to the work that went on in their classrooms, the livestream was only an overview; Gaylord emphasized that the virtual gallery offers additional videos and visuals, as well as the opportunity to leave compliments for students on their pieces.
“This is just a taste of what’s on this platform,” Gaylord said to wrap up the event. “Please take your time to visit all of the galleries and all of the videos that are presented at this year’s show.”
Emma Smith can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @elsmith_8.