Silhouettes and stereotypes: KCAPA students explore identity through public art

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Sometimes art is a vehicle for sharing an idea with others. Other times, the act of making it shows you something about yourself.

More than 70 students at Kensington’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts have spent months working on a series of pieces — poems, essays, videos and photographs — tackling the topic of teen identity.

Pieces from the “What’s Your Story?” project,” dreamed up by KCAPA teachers Josh Kleiman and Charlie McGeehan, now hang in eight different spots in the school’s neighborhood. The teachers said they were inspired by the work of photographer Wendy Ewald and writer Linda Christensen.

Students created portraits, shared family photos and crafted silhouettes as a way to explore different ways of thinking about their own identities.

“When you see the silhouette, you see the outline of the person, but you don’t really know the real story behind the person,” said junior Natasha Feliciano. In that way, she said silhouettes are like stereotypes, because both give an incomplete picture.

To visualize both of these ideas, students shot silhouette portraits, all black profiles on a white background.  Then they challenged a specific stereotype that they faced, and wrote a response to inside their silhouettes.

These stereotypes became the basis of “single story” essays, where students discussed a time when they felt judged by someone. The single story idea was in part inspired by a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“The stereotype that I’m trying to break out of is a young teenage mother [not] being successful,” said junior Bianca Michelle Ventura, who wrote about being shamed by a counter attendant at a deli.

“I told her I was 17 and she was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s too young to be a mother’,” said Ventura. Contrary to the stereotype, she said becoming a mother has given her more motivation to stay in school and pursue a career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Drawing out stereotypes was just one way McGeehan and Kleiman pushed students to examine how other people see them — and how they see themselves.

Students also wrote poems about their families, called ‘Raised by’ poems, which had them pick out specific experiences from their lives to share a complex picture of themselves.

McGeehan said his students sometimes fall back on cliches, like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” when trying to convey a nuanced identity. “A lot of my work as an English teacher was to push them deeper than that, so the way we did that was by vignettes.”

Junior Helena Deacy’s “Raised by” poem focused on her shifting family structure — and the strong bonds that has forged with her sisters.

Excerpt:I was raised by,Look out for Iris, but listen to Gab‘Wait are you guys even related?Kind of sisters

“I wrote that because we all have different dads, we don’t look alike,” said Deacy, who is the middle sister of three. “But our connection as sisters, you can tell that we’re sisters just how we act together.”

She also wrote about her mother’s drug addiction and recovery. “I think it was a little harder to try to put it in words everybody could understand but not too plain, like ‘she did drugs,'” said Deacy. “I wanted to make it clear that she did care.”

She said her mom has now been clean for six years and is a part of her life. “I am very proud of myself to have written this and my mom. I gave this [poem] to her as a Mother’s Day gift.”

In addition to processing their own stories, students also created stories knowing that their work would be seen by a lot of people — 24 panels, each 10 feet tall, hang on the sides of buildings and row homes in the Kensington neighborhood. Funding from Learning Through Photography, a program out of Moore College of Art and Design, helped cover much of the printing and installation costs.

Vidura Cameron’s portrait hangs near the Berks stop on the Market-Frankford Line, directly across the street from the entrance to KCAPA. “It’s kind of weird,” said Cameron. “All these people always see it and … I kinda do feel like a celebrity.”

Visibility is part of the point, according to Kleiman. “The goal for me for these projects has always been to take what they’re doing and amplify it as big as possible.”

Showing the pieces in the neighborhood has two functions, according to the teachers. The first has to do with engaging the students. “When students know that what they’re doing will be seen by people who aren’t themselves and their teachers, it becomes completely different for them,” said Kleiman.

Another function, said McGeehan, is showing the city another side of public school students in Philadelphia. “We have a lot of issues, and we don’t have a lot of money,” he said. But if all people talk about is budget cuts, “the complexity of our students is lost.”

The following contains explicit language.

Finally, it shows students the value of telling their own stories, said McGeehan. That was new for some students, like Zachary Kaufmann. “It really got me, that people really care what we think,” he said.

For more examples of students work, visit: http://www.kcapaphoto.org/

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