In the best of all possible worlds, a veteran art teacher would decide to shake up the inertia of the system with the quixotic idea of recruiting inner-city high school students for an art program he builds from scratch; then he would end up sending his graduates to the best art schools in the nation. It's not only possible but very real if we are talking about Jon Kitner, who has made such a world happen at Miami-Dade Community College's North Campus.
Kitner's views on teaching dramatically changed after his experience in England, where, as a Fulbright Scholar, he spent a year at Wakefield College. "We team-taught everything," he explains. "The kids were together with the staff all day, day after day. We traveled together and became like an extended family. It occurred to me that even though Wakefield College was poorer than Miami-Dade, the quality of the art students' work was higher and deeper, because of the togetherness and the synergy that this created."
In these days of hype about cyberlearning in education, Kitner does his recruiting the old-fashioned way: He makes trips to high schools searching for talent, interviewing students one at a time. Because Kitner provides students with scholarship money, they need a minimum score on the SAT, the ACT, or Miami-Dade's CPT. "It's hard to find academically qualified art students," he says, so "they need to show drawing ability and a sense of color and composition. In short they have to have the desire and the potential." Once recruited students are admitted to a close-knit community-learning program, the Visual Arts Honors Conservatory (VAHC), where they're kept together for all their subject classes, with the exception of math.
"This is the key," continues Kitner. "They form a kind of a society of their own, which is instrumental in their growth and progress. They look after each other. Some even date." Kitner devised the program, but the money comes from E. Carter Burrus, coordinator and academic advisor for the honors program at the North Campus. Because of Kitner and Burrus's efforts, an at-risk student usually will survive. The results are encouraging: Some of the kids who seem to be the weakest at the outset become the strongest by the end. In addition to performing strongly in their respective art majors, students have to do well in all their academic honors classes.
Kitner must be doing something right, since highly regarded art schools around the United States accept many of his kids. Although slightly puzzled, he's pleasantly surprised. "This proves that our graduates are literate and responsible as well as creative," says the art teacher.
The veteran pedagogue sees this work as a matter of self-realization. "To show black students a video of Jacob Lawrence and encourage them to find their roots in those who came before them, that's empowerment," he says. Kitner's program doesn't make a big issue out of students' ethnicity, though it may touch it tangentially. "You don't use these kids to demonstrate some social or political agenda. That's dishonest if your goal is to put the students first. Instead you must let these kids learn to define themselves. They lead, I follow."
The 38 students currently enrolled in the two-year program are either black or Hispanic; according to Kitner two-thirds are Hispanic. "I find the best students in what you would think are the worst schools," he points out. For Kitner these inner-city have-nots have a truer element of authenticity. "You'll be surprised.... They are not spoiled by material greed." For Kitner this is the real deal.
Kitner's project represents a hope for forgotten students. Last year he graduated his first class of about eight students. Out of that group, four were admitted to nationally recognized art schools: the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Parsons School of Design in New York City, the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and Smith College. All these students receive a combination of scholarships and financial aid. This year's graduating class is more than twice as large. The theater and music programs at North Campus are following Kitner's model and setting up their own versions of VAHC.
Just a weekend left to check out these two wonderful shows.
First the irreverent in-your-face images in Jordan Massengale's "Unpulpular," at the Dorsch Gallery. Massengale takes painting to where it should be right now. The artist's "unpulpular" design goes retro, using the comic form rather than indulging, as too many do, in proto-Japanese bull. His stuff is Mickey's old cartoon cohorts Eega Beeva mixed with the Phantom Blot, splashed with Massengale's quasi-expressionist sloppy dabs and drips, replete with R. Crumbian fetish associations and post-cold war pop references. Massengale's sadomasochism and political pranks are subversive enough for our complacent age of pretty art.
Arturo Cuenca's "New Work City" at Aroca Gallery in Coral Gables also is worth a visit. Cuenca's airbrushed mind trances on canvas stimulate reflection. His in- and out-of-focus images accost the 20/20 vision, taking us to a synthetic moment of blurred New York City spaces and hazy skies. An important Cuban artist of the Eighties, Cuenca nimbly blends ideology and political scandal. Imagine the infamous Clinton/Lewinsky footage, processed and turned into totalitarian pseudo-kitsch in which a battalion of happy-faced Lewinskys donning one-star berets à la Che Guevara gives a martial salute to President Clinton. The title: Imaginary Film: Left-Wings Key. Whether he shames or chides his subject matter, Cuenca does with art what H.L. Mencken did with American prose.
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