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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

For Good

Sculptor teams with high-school kids for anti-violence projects

"When you introduce something through art,” says Pittsburgh sculptor Blaine Siegel, “you're opening a different perception, a different doorway. Especially when kids talk about violence, it's just about 'Do this, don't do that.' Not the 'Why?' Art makes you think harder to find meaning. That's when there is a different thought process – kids are more engaged and you get to a much better place."
 
Siegel, an artist in residence in Wilkinsburg High School during the previous school year, is still working with Wilkinsburg students in an effort to use art to deal with violence. Siegel and his students have created videos and will do readings and musical performances at the Society for Contemporary Craft’s “Enough Violence” exhibition on Dec. 13.
 
Last year, Siegel converted Wilkinsburg High School’s woodshop into an art studio where, twice a week, 18 students worked with him on his sculptures, then branched out to do their own artwork. He also visited their classes for talks and demonstrations. In an English class studying writers of the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, he added visual art to the mix, guiding students in creating a mosaic, while in a health class studying the respiratory system he helped students sculpt a model of a body with a mechanical lung that inhaled and exhaled, introducing them also to artists who created body-themed.
 
Wilkinsburg is the most violent high school in Pennsylvania, according to a state study in 2012.  "I don't believe it – but the perception exists," Siegel says. He showed his students a speech by Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban and has since spoken out widely about the violence – and her own reaction to it.
 
"I started to draw parallels between her and these kids' experiences," Siegel says. He noticed them constantly making music – singing, banging on lockers – "representing the beauty these students are able to create in this atmosphere of violence," he says.
 
He first approached the school band, which made a video of drumming a Pakistani beat from Malala's region as they walked through school halls.
 
Then Siegel took a snippet of Malala's speech to the UN, in which she spoke of not wanting to shoot her attackers in revenge, and overlaid it with stills from the school. He asked a group of its students whether they would shoot in revenge for a gun crime, and the majority said yes. Then he played them Malala’s UN speech, and they saw a picture of a girl their age.
 
"Opinions started to change,” he reports, “and it's interesting to see that happen."
 
When he took students to view the “Enough Violence” exhibit, which contains a wide range of artistic responses to our society’s violence, they were most affected by the sculpture at the front of the show, which depicts a toddler with a gun holding up fellow toddlers, some in diapers. It started a vital discussion, he says, about nature versus nurture, and how violence is introduced to people at a young age.
 
"That got a lot of sharing going,” Siegel says. “They're young adults but they're also older kids, so that piece got to them."
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Blaine Siegel
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