Insisting on Beauty

By Betsy Ferrer Okkelo,

Assistant Clinical Professor of Educational Leadership at University of Notre Dame

I first went to Kisumu, Kenya as an undergraduate anthropology major at the University of Notre Dame. It was my first trip outside of the country, and I was unsure what to expect. My traveling companion left after only two days overwhelmed by the experience of living in Nyalenda, the informal settlement area that would become my home. Alone in a new environment, I explored, played with children, made friends, ate new foods, learned new languages, and marveled at the beauty around me in the midst of real suffering.

Mwangaza Art School first captured my attention because it was on the same compound as my small room. The students were around my age so I started spending time there - watching them learn to draw figures, paint, sing, and play drums. I enjoyed their company and envied their creativity. I also came to a deeper understanding about the arts. Too often we assume that artistic talent is a natural ability - that one is born gifted and creative and the rest of us are unlucky. However, watching artists at work, I came to see that these students were working hard to become artists. They were learning to sketch, to mix colors, to learn perspective, and to seek and find beauty. These skills were taught and learned, not bestowed upon a lucky few at birth.

My experience in Kenya stuck with me for many years. I had become a middle school English teacher and used theatre in my English classes as a way to more deeply engage text. In my doctoral work, I wanted to explore the ways in which engagement with the arts as a discipline could help students more deeply engage with the discipline of literacy. In designing my own research, I remembered the art school and decided to return to Kenya.

Spending every day observing these young artists in the classroom and in their fieldwork beyond the walls of the school deepened my understanding of the arts as a discipline. I watched as students learned how to see - how to look carefully at a face, a tree, clothes hanging on a line to dry and to create those lines on the page. They worked on perspective, source of light, shadow. So much of the work of these artists mirrored my own work as a researcher; they observed carefully, trying to capture the essence of the object or person.

Kisumu is not an easy place to become an artist. Members of students’ own families dismissed their work as “playing around” and devalued their craft as “writing on walls.” Students also face a challenging landscape as youth. The youth unemployment rate hovers around 26% and many of the students live below the poverty line. Art materials are expensive and difficult to come by so students make do buying bed sheets at second hand markets that they prime and stretch on frames they learn to make themselves. They bargain for house paint contained in old coke bottles and mix colors to get their desired shades. They make their own stalls to sell their work to tourists and other Kenyans uncertain if they will sell any paintings.

Yet this ability to see and create beauty persists. This observation is not intended to romanticize either the artist or the poor. The realities of life in Nyalenda are harsh - these young artists have lost family members, experienced violence, struggle to support themselves, in short, suffer real losses. The artists do not ignore these challenges; they find and create beauty in the midst of them. These artists look at their surroundings – living in poverty with very limited resources – and use tactics to create. And that, truly, is the work of art.

It is also the work of urban education. We often talk about teaching as an art. Much like my own early assumptions about art, embedded in that description is too often a dismissal of the act of teaching as gifted upon lucky educators rather than a skill that requires hard work to learn and master. The skillful teacher, like these young artists, seeks out, creates, and insists on beauty. As the artist re-imagines bed sheets and re-purposes materials, the skillful teacher sees possibility in every student that enters his or her classroom - future lawyers, teachers, artists, doctors, community organizers. With this vision always in mind, the skillful teacher commits to help students realize their potential through powerful pedagogical practices that are culturally relevant and content-rich. Teachers tap into the richness that children bring by engaging them in inquiry - asking about their literacy practices inside and outside of school, going on neighborhood walks to see their school neighborhood the way insiders do, attending community events, carefully attending to the many ways students use language and expression. The doors of our schools open both ways. We invite children into the space of the school and ask them to bring all the richness of their lives and communities with them. Then we build on that richness and co-create new knowledge inside our classrooms that students carry back out with them into their own communities to transform them.

Teaching has been described as both an art and a science. Looking to the discipline of art - the seriousness with which artists learn to see, draw, paint, and create - can transform our classrooms. Rather than seeing art as “extra”curricular or as a “special” subject, what would it mean to take art seriously in our schools? To place it at the core of what and how we teach children. Beauty should not be reserved for the lucky few but insisted upon for all.