May 27, 2014
Bridgeport Students Pair With Chuck Close for White House Talent Show
Student Stella Alexander, Roosevelt, art teacher Rachel Monsam and artist Chuck Close at the White House Turnaround Arts Talent Show.
A handful of Connecticut students were given the opportunity of a lifetime last week—to participate in the first White House Turnaround Arts Talent Show.
Hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the talent show featured students from eight poor-performing schools that participate in the committee’s Turnaround Arts program, created two years ago to test the theory that arts education can help improve student outcomes and create more positive learning environments.
Roosevelt School, an elementary school in Bridgeport, is one such school. Five students, from 12 to 14, were selected to participate in the show held on Tuesday, May 20. President Barack Obama also stopped by the show to meet with the students.
(President Obama meeting Chuck Close, right, and artist, below.)
“It was amazing,” says Roosevelt Elementary Principal Tania Kelley. “Some of them had never flown on an airplane … Some had never been to Washington, D.C., much less inside of The White House. These are experiences they will never forget.”
The students were also accompanied Roosevelt art teacher Rachel Monsam and music educator Alicia Robinson.
Each of the schools (located around the country including Washington D.C., Louisiana, Oregon and Montana) were assigned a creative professional from the committee to work with for the show. The Roosevelt Elementary students worked with renowned artist Chuck Close to create a series of portraits.
Close, who is based in New York, is known for his large-scale photorealist portraits. He was presented with the prestigious National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. among other arts organizations.
(Yan Carols Camacho with his portrait and praise poem of T'Zaih Hanks, left.)
The students, who were selected to participate based on their behavior and artistic ability, were paired up and worked on portraits of each other over a seven-week period. Most of the work was completed with Monsam and Art Instructor at Housatonic Community College and Roosevelt Community Partner Thomas Brenner.
Monsam took the students through the complicated process of creating their portraits, which began with taking photographs of each other and moved on to blocking out a grid on canvas, drawing in pencil and then placing layer upon layer of paint onto the canvas to achieve a realistic match to the original photograph.
The students also spent a day working with Close, who gave them feedback on their paintings and helped them write their praise poems—meant to honor the peer they immortalized in paint.
One student, Stella Alexander, created a portrait and praise poem for Close (right). He, in turn, took Polaroids of some of the students. They were invited to Close’s studio, where he gave them lessons on his painting techniques. Monsam says he helped the students gain confidence in mixing colors and layering the paint. The majority of his paintings are completed in three colors—magenta, yellow and blue—that are mixed to create the many colors of a face.
“I feel like they learned a tremendous amount,” says Monsam. “They have a depth of appreciation for the arts, for creating a portrait.”
All of the portraits and praise poems were displayed outside of the East Room in The White House where they could be seen before the talent show. The students stood with their work, answering people’s questions about the process. (The students with their Polaroid photos, left.)
“For me, it was the transformation,” says Kelley. “Some of these kids I’ve seen for the last three years. It’s the transformation of them not only becoming good students but to hone their craft, to be able to be mentored by Chuck Close and to take it so seriously. Some of them came here good [at art], but now they’re so much better. That, for me, was huge.”
For more information on Chuck Close, see his website at chuckclose.com. (The artist in a photo from the school's website, right.)