In Fenger, art builds community

Mosaics, student-led art projects create positivity

Fenger High School

Principal Elizabeth Dozier, at center in skirt, with students in the lunchroom at Fenger High School and one of the mosaics they have made around the school. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune / June 7, 2013)

The urge to create is as old as the human race, as ancient as the day someone felt the urge to draw colorful lines across bodies and faces or, more permanently, paint on or carve into the walls of a cave. This sort of self-expression reaches a natural, if daunting, evolutionary step each art fair season, already in full swing.

This is the weekend of the Old Town Art Fair, and I cannot be at the Old Town Art Fair this weekend because I am at the Tribune-run Printers Row Lit Fest (I have always preferred its original name, Printers Row Book Fair), and that's that.

But I have been to my fair share of Old Town Art Fairs, beginning almost as long ago as the fair began, that being 1949, and I have been to many other art fairs too.

There are, by my best count — and thanks to the Illinois Arts Council's tally at illinoisartfairdirectory.org — 63 major art fairs for you to sample across Illinois, ending with the November 23-24 Christmas Crossroads Craft Show in Lockport. Certainly, not all of the art is good. Some is junk. But most of the fairs and fests are free, and it is likely that you can pick up some "real" art for less than the price of a mass-produced poster. It might be something that brightens your life for keeps.

There are no art fairs in Roseland, the beleaguered neighborhood on the Far South Side. There are no galleries there either, no taverns exhibiting the work of a local photographer. But inside the walls of Christian Fenger Academy High School there is art, and as a result there just might be hope.

"There is sadly a tendency to discount art as part of any community," says the school's principal, Elizabeth Dozier. "But I have always emphasized its importance. It is inviting. It is empowering. Creating it is a collaborative effort. It builds community in so many ways."

That is Dozier in the photograph, standing in the middle of a bunch of Fenger students, all of them fronting the magnificent mosaic mural that adorns the school's cafeteria.

Fenger? Fenger? The name rings a bell, doesn't it?

That is because on Sept. 24, 2009 a 16-year-old sophomore named Derrion Albert was beaten to death by five boys outside the school, some of them using pieces of a railroad tie. As a result of a video that captured the murder, the story made national news. The streets outside the school were filled with news trucks. Dozier was compelled to meet with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, who deigned to fly into town while the news cameras were rolling.

Dozier had been principal for only a couple of weeks when that tragedy took place, and the media circus and political opportunism ensued.

But after the cameras and the pols departed, artist Carolyn Elaine came back to school. A 1980 Fenger graduate, she designed the 700-square-foot cafeteria mosaic and began working with students, teachers and parents on its installation.

This was the first piece in Elaine's Restoring the P.I.E.C.E.S. (People Inspired Encouraging Community Empowerment and Strength) project, something she created "to reconnect schools that have been impacted by violence with their surrounding communities through student-led public art projects." She also wanted to help Fenger dispel "the negative view of the school that was spread around the world like a virus."

The mural offers a portrait of Fenger's history told in photographs of teachers,(past and present), school clubs, students who have died (including Albert), students still in school, families and words: RESPECT, LEGACY, CULTURE, DREAMS, PRIDE, FAMILY.

It would be impossible to calculate how the presence and creation of art might have contributed to positive changes at Fenger during the last four years: incidents of violence way down, graduation rates way up. Also playing a part are other efforts, all under a broader "restorative justice" philosophy. These include a peace room, overseen by Robert Spicer, the school's ebullient and patient Culture and Climate specialist; "peace circles" meant to help students and their parents learn ways to resolve conflict; and regular conferences on issues that affect the neighborhood.

Since the mosaic was finished in 2010, the other walls of the school have bloomed. As you walk the hallways of Fenger today, all is neat and clean, brightly lit, and art is everywhere, including two more large mosaic murals.

"I wish we could have more, but they are expensive," Dozier says.

Money is always an issue in our public schools, and it is the reason that Fenger and its 600-some students will only have one full-time art teacher next year. This year there were two.

That may not seem a tragedy as you wander the season's many art fairs. Roseland is a long way from the quiet, tree-lined streets of Old Town. But do think about it.

Picasso once said: "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls."

Daily life in Roseland can be harsh. But for some, there is an oasis called Fenger.

rkogan@tribune.com

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