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THURSDAY, OCT 3 — In high schools across mid-Michigan, students seeking to express their concerns about rape culture, racism, LGBTQ rights or mass incarceration are finding outlets in art class.
On Sunday, packs of friends and family gathered in Erickson Kiva at Michigan State University to hear the winners of the PeaceQuest Art Challenge. Every year, PeaceQuest, a program in Greater Lansing celebrating the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, picks a theme for the competition and shares it with the Michigan Education Art Association for teachers to enlist their students.
“Having the opportunity to have students bring up topics that matter to them is unique because we don’t get the chance to do that in other classes,” said Katelyn Ernst, 18, who won first place in the 2019 Art Challenge.
Ernst won for her mixed media work, “Perseverance in Unity.” She completed the piece in spring before graduating from St. Johns High School, and wanted to cover a topic that impacted her life.
“The #MeToo movement is really important to me,” she said. “I know people in my life who have been affected by sexual assault and abuse. I wanted to show the different cultures and people that go into unity.”
This year, students were given themes of segregation and diversity for the art. Ernst’s piece features a lineup of women in the foreground from various ethnic backgrounds. Layers of article clips from significant current events fill the background, including a headline citing New York civil rights activist Tarana Burke’s debut of #metoo.
Ernst has enrolled at Central Michigan University and said participating in the competition this year encouraged her to take painting more seriously.
Holt Public Schools art teacher Heidi Irvine introduces the art challenge to her senior classes and asks her students to share what issues matter to them, as well as prescribed discussion questions from PeaceQuest. She said young women in her classes were inspired by the #MeToo movement and many of the men wanted to focus on the pressures of gender norms.
“There are a lot of personal things that people are dealing with, like alcoholism in their families,” said Irvine, who has participated in PeaceQuest for about seven years.
Irish Phinney, 15, was the first student from Morrice High School to submit to the art challenge. He said PeaceQuest discussions in the class made him realize that “it takes people time to understand and learn how they are doing” as well as to empathize with others.
Phinney’s painting “We Are One” received an honorable mention for his use of color and shapes to show the various intersections that make up every individual.
“At first, I was going to do skin colors, but I thought that would be bland,” he said. “I was like, you know people in different universes, or in their own mind, want to be pink, purple or blue.”
The family-friendly award ceremony included an interactive “peace quiz” where participants answered multiple-choice questions about the origins of International Peace Day and historical figures.
Except for one mixed family, the diversity of the room wasn’t easy to spot — most of the attendees were white. When asked about the level of participation from students of color, Irvine said the most vocal students in the social justice-oriented discussions were girls of color.
“Around here it seems to be a lot of older white ladies in the leadership positions, but with my kids, it was a lot of the minority students — women more so than men — who had passionate things to say,” Irvine said. “I hope they move on to leadership positions because they have great things to say.”