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Students find meaning in politics through art

Friday, November 7, 2008 | 11:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:04 p.m. CST, Friday, November 7, 2008
Rock Bridge High School students in Sharyn Hyatt-Wade’s class created mixed-media artwork on poltical topics. Student Bryan Tweeddale’s piece — featuring a blind-folded head painted black with gold leafing — represents his view of the economy.

COLUMBIA — Drawing on apathy, alienation, addiction and the looming specter of death, the students in Sharyn Hyatt-Wade's art class at Rock Bridge High School have created mixed-media pieces on a political topic of their choosing. Some drew from experience, some from beliefs. Some, such as junior Bryan Tweeddale, chose subjects they didn't care much about; he went with the crumbling economy. Art helped him find conviction.

"I wasn't that into it at first," Tweeddale said.  Then he started watching the news and reading up on the financial downturn. "People are losing their houses and losing their jobs," he said, apathetic no more.

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His piece is an execution scene: The condemned man is stamped with a bar code, smoking his last dollar bill and blindfolded by an American flag.

In this case, Tweeddale is behaving like any political artist; that is, finding meaning in the act of creating art. What begins as personal expression continues as a dialogue with an audience, and each person who views the art can arrive at his or her own meaning from the completed work.

"There are people who live on the sharp edge and want to be poked on a daily basis by how grim the world is," Diana Moxon, executive director of the Columbia Art League, said of consumers of political art. Her gallery plays host to a show called "Politically Speaking" starting in January. Several of Hyatt-Wade's students will submit work.  

Senior Emeri Bartels' piece, a reaction to the difficulties of obtaining health insurance, is perhaps even sharper than Tweeddale's, though it will take more than a glance to poke. Blue-painted cotton, photographs of children and brightly colored paper create a background from which protrude a peachy figure and a syringe. The clouds symbolize a heaven to which those children have gone.

Bartels' brother spent years trying to overcome cancer. Eventually, the family was able to get the insurance necessary for what Bartels said was a million-dollar bone-marrow transplant, but many of his co-patients couldn't get coverage. In context, her choice of such a cheerful palate is devastating: "You can't just be sad or you can't get through it," Bartels said.

"I wanted to show what I thought about the issue in a way everyone would understand it," senior classmate Lauren Bianco said of her piece, which condemns abortion. Her words speak to more universal ideas; the unique ability of art to show thoughts and emotions in such a way as to promote understanding. Where rhetoric is frequently about argument, art is frequently about discussion.

"Artists have always been rule-breakers and meaning-makers," Hyatt-Wade said.

Making artistic sense of politics has to start within the artist. "The first step is getting yourself involved and then you can get everyone else all gung-ho," said junior Garrette Daugherty, whose mixed-media project was about censorship.

Professional Columbia-based artist David Spear's work is familiar around Columbia; his paintings hang at Addison's and Sophia's restaurants, among other locations, and he painted the electrical box at Ninth Street and Broadway. Spear recalled that on Sept. 11, 2001, he, like people around the world, watched the seemingly endless videos of the planes hitting the towers, of shell-shocked journalists and terrified Americans. His own response, in sculpture: a small bronze model of a tower, a plane buried halfway into it, with wailing, disembodied faces cast in motion around the scene.

Not all Spear's political pieces are dark. He painted a pair of birdhouses with the faces of President George W. Bush and Sen. Hillary Clinton and called the work "Birdbrains."

Of his artwork in general, he said, "I don't know if they have any influence. But I feel like it's something I have to say."

Although the artist is likely to be drawing from something personal, the finished product plays an important social role. "Artists reflect the culture," said David A. White III, executive director of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. He said art holds a mirror to society and allows audiences to appraise what they see.

"It's kind of the subconscious of society," Spear said.

For now, the students in Hyatt-Wade's class have an audience made up of just their classmates and teacher. As they presented their works, each artist stood against a backdrop of all the projects. The students explained what they were attempting to convey, shepherded as needed by Hyatt-Wade. Their classmates sat respectfully, absorbing the often difficult messages and considering the ideas.

One such message can be found in the work of Kristen Blair, who was involved in a car crash caused by cell-phone use. Her project is a cross made from crushed beer cans, broken rearview mirrors and other mangled reminders, and the piece had enough impact on the students that they took a collective oath to stay off their cell phones while driving.

"In small ways," Hyatt-Wade said, "we are changing minds."


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