Exploring ‘Racism as a Public Health Crisis’

Student art part of exhibit at Mia


As an art teacher at St. Paul’s Como Park High School, Sydney Willcox seeks to connect student creations with their own lived experiences.
A recent collaboration with local artists allowed that goal to flourish, both for her students and the larger community. Thirteen Como students enrolled in Sydney’s painting classes produced pieces that became part of the “Racism as a Public Health Crisis” exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia).
The idea of addressing racism through art was presented to Sydney in early September of last year by Sheila McGuire, head of learning at Mia. McGuire suggested 7-10 student participants. Without yet knowing her students, nor who may be willing to put in the extra time commitments, Sydney presented the opportunity to all her painting classes.
The initiative included four virtual workshop sessions, three of which already aligned with Sydney’s lesson plans. The willing and able students collaborated with professional artists in the areas of idea generation, materials/technique, individual artmaking, and group collaboration.
“All four teaching artists, Kprecia Amber, Akiko Ostlund, Juan Lucero, and Nancy Ariza have wonderful ideas and very different presentation styles,” Sydney said. “Observing the similarity of goal and the difference in style is causing me to reflect upon both my teaching and my making practice. I am as enriched by the experience as our Como students.”
Freshman Amaya Sanders expressed gratitude about the artistic journey. “It’s nice to know we have a voice and that we can share our stories in different ways,” Sanders said.
As for guiding her students through the project and the complex subject of “Racism as a Public Health Crisis,” Sydney did not see herself as the teacher who needed to provide direct instruction.
“As a person of privilege, I felt I could not instruct how students express their experiences. Instruction in this case is to provide access, then get out of the way,” Sydney said.
As for technique, the professional artist input was inspirational and empowering. It allowed student voice and individual expression to shine through the process and not be limited by specific art principles.
With an abundance of rich, colorful expressions being produced, the number of Como students chosen to share their work in the Mia exhibit was increased beyond the originally stated target. Similarly, art was emerging from students at two other selected high schools: Minneapolis North and the Minnesota Transitions Charter School.
By November, Mia was ready to open a new public art exhibition in their Community Commons Gallery featuring the student artwork. Sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the exhibit provided the local artists and high school students a chance to share their unique perspectives on how race relates to our public health.
Through their own works, and through mentoring of the students, the local professional artists created an authentic community partnership. A Mia press release from McGuire said the exhibit created multi-generational “conversations about the impacts of systemic racism inside and outside of Mia.”
In January, Mia hosted an in-person reception for the contributing artists.
In pre-pandemic times, field trips to an art institute might have happened for some fortunate high school art students. But for high school students enrolled in a beginning painting class… going to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see your own art on display?
Como junior Fuad Abdi said, “That was pretty cool.”
Asked to summarize how her students reacted, Sydney simply said, “Awe.
“Awe, at the museum. Awe, that they are part of the experience. There were so many people there and news cameras.”
She added, “I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring students to Mia. Mia is this terrific community resource. I want our students to be able to know of it, enjoy it, see themselves, and their experiential expressions in the museum.”


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