Studio to School

“What Connects Us,” Journal #9

What Connects Us
Project Description by Teaching Artist Elijah Hasan

“What Connects Us” is an art project that combines photography and the shared life experience of each artist. Through an interview process, these experience in the the form of thoughts and ideas are recorded, written out and eventually placed along side the artist’s portrait. In these portraits, each artist are making gestures toward directions of their choice. Assembled side by side, atop and below, the final arrangement of these words and faces provides visual evidence of how each of these unique individuals are connected to the broader community.

To view a short video about the project, follow this link:

Interview with Elijah Hasan

The following interview with artist Elijah Hasan was facilitated by S2S project lead and Open Signal Director of Programs, Taylor Neitzke following a week long residency at Open School North in May of 2017. Elijah instructed OSN students through his project, “What Connects Us” in collaboration with Art teacher Tab Waterman and Project Facilitator Reina S.

Taylor: What is the importance of having artist residencies in schools?

Elijah: I think it’s important for the artist, me, as well as the students. I was first introduced to photography by a professional that came in and taught me when I was 9 years old. This is my way of completing the circle, by going back and exposing young people to photography and being creative. Seeing me be creative, seeing me move and shake and talk automatically expands their universe from what they’ve been seeing. Right now I’m speaking about kids of color, black kids specifically, a lot of their diet of media and the role models or lack there of that they see in the media and elsewhere, even at home, are really in a tiny pigeon hole of the experience of black people and our capacities, what we are able to go into and think and imagine. So them seeing me do what I do and talk the way that I talk automatically gives them permission and is showing them something else. That’s very important. And for me I feel like I get more out of the experience being around their energy, encouraging me and sometimes forcing me, to think about things I haven’t thought about or considered; making me uncomfortable, that’s good for me because it makes me continue to think on my feet and to problem solve, sometimes in real time. That’s something I can’t buy anywhere. For me to have the opportunity to work with young people that don’t know me and we haven’t established any trust bonds is an opportunity for me to grow.

Taylor: Do you have a story you’d like to share from your residency experience?

Elijah: There were a couple students sitting on the sidelines kind of not really engaged at all. I took it upon myself to go in and ask them where they were at, ask them where there work was and a lot of times it wasn’t done. I worked with them through the project so that they would have something in the exhibit. If it weren’t for me going in and taking a personal look at these students that were on the fringes just not engaged, if I hadn’t helped this person and took my time, these students would not have been a part of the exhibit or they wouldn’t have gotten exposure to the camera or the exposure to Photoshop, none of that stuff. I had to really be aware of that and then act on it, consciously move on it. Without that it wouldn’t have happened, again that reminded me that all those little things add up to something big.

It’s always been my experience that the kids that resist at first if I stay consistent and I’m there being consistent in the way that I am in the way that I talk or the advice that I give by the time that the program has ended or we get a few weeks in those kids that were the most resistant show the most love and respect.

Taylor: Do you have any advice for fellow or aspiring teaching artists?

Elijah: My advice to any artist or teacher or someone coming into a room to do anything with young people is you have to be really authentic and real. Young people will size you up in 5-seconds whether or not your heart is in it. If you are afraid or you are there for other reasons than to serve them, you just might as well walk out the door. If you are really about it and sincere and willing to make yourself vulnerable you have a chance to reach them, ain’t no guarantees!

One thing I will suggest is that if you are working with this population especially populations of color, it is tough for whites especially to connect with kids of color especially young black men. It’s not impossible but it takes longer I feel to build trust. The other thing is just because you are a person of color doesn’t mean you’re automatically are going to get a pass or connection. You need to be really prepared and really not afraid and if they are afraid embrace that fear, deal with it, and talk to the young people about it. Talk to them about how you are uncomfortable, “I’m really uncomfortable being here this is my experience, I haven’t worked with you guys yet, I just want you to know. I’d appreciate if you worked with me on it but I’m just telling you how I feel.” Getting that out frees them automatically from it being a secret because now you don’t have to worry about it. Now you can move on.

Taylor: Is there anything else you learned from this residency that you’d like to share?

Elijah: Customize my frequency or expectations for wherever the young people are. Be fluid.

The interview above represents the following Studio to School principles:

3) Honor the diverse perspectives, experiences, and contribution of all involved.

4) Engage experienced and skilled teaching artists and arts educators.

5) Understand and respond equitably to community strengths, histories, and needs.

6) Provide varied, relevant, and high quality opportunities for students to engage in arts learning.

8) Build appreciation and support for arts education in schools and communities.

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