On Tuesday, Nov. 19, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), in celebration of International Education Week, hosted the VSA Student Art Exhibit and ribbon-cutting ceremony, Yo Soy … Je Suis … I Am … My Family, in Barnard Auditorium. VSA was founded almost 40 years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith to create a society in which people with disabilities learn through the arts, and is an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center’s education programs are supported by a National Arts in Education Program grant from OII.
The exhibit is a collection of 19 works by students from 10 nations in VSA’s International Art Program for Children with Disabilities. Also featured were music performances by winners of VSA’s International Young Soloists Competition. There are an additional 51 pieces on display at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
The event brought several student artists and their families from across the U.S. to see their work displayed in the nation’s capital. Katerina, 15, made the long road trip from Sioux Falls, S.D., with her teacher and family. She said that she was “so happy” to have her painting, Circle of Love, displayed in the Department and her mother said that it was “great to be able to see it hanging in-person.”
Seth, 12, creator of the colored pencil, crayon, and watercolor Playing Basketball with My Family, drove with his family from Lansing, Mich., to take part in the ceremony. Seth portrayed himself playing basketball with his brothers to show that they are “all together like a family.” This fits with this year’s International Education Week theme, Learning Matters Around the World, which encourages all people to reflect on our interconnectedness and the importance of education globally. “The arts are certainly an important part of our learning as individuals, as a society, and as an interconnected world,” said Maureen McLaughlin, senior advisor to the secretary and director of international affairs at ED, who welcomed guests as they “celebrate(d) the … vital role the arts play in expression around the world.”
Betty Siegel, director of the Office of VSA and Accessibility at the Kennedy Center, organized the event to show the wide range of stages of becoming educated in the arts and took great pleasure in serving as the master of ceremonies. Darrell Ayers, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of education, participated in the program and quoted President Kennedy’s remarks on the arts, spoken 50 years ago: “We have an obligation to further the appreciation of culture among all the people, to increase respect for the creative individual and to widen participation by all the processes and fulfillments of art.” Art programs like VSA’s and ED’s Student Art Exhibit Program strive to do exactly that.
Melody Musgrove, ED’s director of special education programs, told a childhood story of her yearly visits with her mother to the VSA art exhibit at the Mississippi state fair, which she always looked forward to. She mentioned the three values that her office focuses on in its work — “inclusion, equity, and opportunity” — and said that “every student should have the opportunity to be able to participate and learn through various art activities.” In this vein, Musgrove thanked the parents of the students who participate in VSA for encouraging their children to be a part of the program.
Marquise Griffin, a student and member of a program at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., thanked VSA for choosing his art and confidently stated that he “hopes to one day become a famous artist.” Marquise’s mother, Swantiner Griffin, said that programs for children who have a hard time expressing their emotions verbally, like the one Marquise is involved in, show “what our kids have to say through art.”
Gregory Burns, an artist and educator with VSA Singapore, spoke about how his travels in more than 40 countries were just as important as his classroom learning in helping him understand other cultures. He encouraged all students to “drink in all sides of life” in order to “create something that speaks to the universal truths found in all lands, religions, and peoples.” And Colette Young, a graduate student at Columbia University and 2013 VSA International Young Soloists Competition winner, explained how her involvement in music helped her overcome the enormous obstacles associated with her dyslexia and enriched her learning. Colette is now teaching other learning disabled students music and helping them excel.
Highlights of the celebration were the musical performances by VSA International Young Soloists Competition winners Blessing Offor (2010), singer/songwriter, and Paul Gavin (2013), drummer. Their versions of Just the Two of Us, by Bill Withers, and the Dave Brubeck classic, Take Five, were captivating and energizing and demonstrated the beauty the creative arts bring to the world.
The program concluded with the traditional, ceremonial ribbon-cutting by the student artists. All in attendance were treated to a catered lunch and had the opportunity to view the art, chat with the artists in attendance, and mingle with one another.
Click here to see additional photos from the exhibit opening.
Nicole Carinci is a management and program analyst in the Office of Communications and Outreach.
Department of Education photos are by Joshua Hoover.