Providence Art Students Soar Through RISD’s Project Open Door

RISD MAT student Nitashia Johnson works with Kunty Voeun on an art project during the after-school program at Alvarez.

RISD MAT student Nitashia Johnson works with Kunty Voeun on an art project during the after-school program at Alvarez.

Every Saturday morning, Julie Cheeks, a junior at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, does what might be unthinkable for many 16-year-olds. She gets up at 6 a.m. to catch one of three busses that will take her to a 9 a.m. portfolio class at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Despite the early morning commute from her home, when Cheeks arrives at 20 Washington Street at the bottom of College Hill, she opens the door to a world few Rhode Island students ever see.

Clara Lieu, a critic in the division of Foundation Studies at RISD, works with Alvarez junior Julie Cheeks on her staircase during a portfolio class in the school’s art studio.

Clara Lieu, a critic in the division of Foundation Studies at RISD, works with Alvarez junior Julie Cheeks on her staircase during a portfolio class in the school’s art studio.

Cheeks is a student in Project Open Door, a highly competitive and prestigious program for urban public high school artists at RISD that is designed to challenge and inspire students beyond the limited choices of their high school art curriculums.

RISD developed Project Open Door (POD) in 2005 to increase access to high quality arts learning and careers in art and design for students from Rhode Island’s urban core cities of Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket. There are three main components of the program: after-school art classes at high schools; a portfolio class on Saturday mornings at RISD for freshmen, sophomores and juniors like Cheeks; and a senior portfolio class that prepares students to apply for postsecondary education. After-school classes are offered by open enrollment while the portfolio classes require teacher recommendations, an interview and a review of students’ work.

According to Lauren Allen, POD’s associate director, portfolio students need to be highly motivated as they must commit to attend every Saturday morning for the entire school year. Students are issued a RISD ID and are enveloped in the resources of one of the most prestigious art institutions in the nation, including a free bus pass, access to RISD studios, materials and professors as well as the Museum of Art, Nature Lab and Library.

Project Open Door began almost ten years ago, thanks to a group of boys from Hope High School who craved an artistic outlet. Their high school was struggling at the time and they had heard about an after-school art program at RISD. They found their way to the basement studios of the Washington Place building and wanted to know how they could join.

Professor Paul Sproll, head of RISD’s Department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design, teaches master’s level art education students. But that year he had volunteered to teach an after-school studio class for students at the former Feinstein High School, which was the program the boys had heard about.

These Hope students inspired Sproll. He realized then that there was a need for meaningful art education for talented but under-served teens in the state’s public schools, providing it would be a good match for RISD students studying to be art teachers and the college’s community engagement efforts.

Nearly 10 years later, more than 500 students have passed through Project Open Door. According to Sproll, since POD’s beginning until the spring semester of 2014, 39 Providence Public Schools students have participated in POD’s Portfolio Program. This year saw a significant increase in Providence Schools’ student acceptance and enrollment in the Saturday programming with seven students in the 9th-11th grade portfolio class and 10 in senior portfolio. The students are from Alvarez High School (4), Central High School (1), Classical High School (6), Hope High School (3), Juanita Sanchez (1) and Mt. Pleasant High School (2). High school art teachers are the critical connection in recommending students for the program.

RISD’s investment in Providence students has reaped rewards; there are seven PPSD POD alumni currently enrolled at RISD and two have graduated.

According to Sproll, Project Open Door has a dual mission; to increase access to high quality arts learning and careers in art and design for under-served Rhode Island teens and to provide a learning community education platform for RISD students, alumni, faculty and staff. MAT candidates teach the after-school programs and are assigned to students in senior portfolio to support them in completing their portfolios and mentor them through their college applications.

Led by Associate Director Allen, a group of senior portfolio students recently attended National Portfolio Day in Boston, a college fair for art students. They waited in long lines to show their work, get feedback and review of their portfolios and discuss careers and programs in the arts with representatives from each school.

Working on her “fountain” staircase is Luz Barrutiea of Central High School.

Working on her “fountain” staircase is Luz Barrutiea of Central High School.

After-school programs expand learning opportunities

POD’s after school-programs of approximately 10 students each are reporting great attendance rates, passionate students and unique projects. This semester, the classes were offered at Alvarez and Mt. Pleasant High Schools in Providence.

Masters of Arts in Teaching students Michelle Cho and Nitashia Johnson lead the weekly class at Alvarez. “The goal for this group is to allow the students to explore, to feel free and confident,” said Johnson, who hopes to develop a similar art program in her home state of Texas.

Students, including Cheeks, are working on accordion books, which resemble long cards with multiple folds. They are creating themed two-dimensional surfaces using images from magazines and building upon them with drawings. Themes range from landscapes to seasons to travel.

“I’m in my artist mode,” said Cheeks of the class. It makes me happy. I like being with friends.”

According to Sproll, the after-school class is designed to expand teens’ horizons about art and art design, “to develop a creative spirit, which we want them to explore.

“This is a wonderful teaching opportunity for graduate students in our MAT program by offering a practicum experience in out-of-school-time teaching,” he said.

“The students are very enthusiastic. They are always asking, ‘what are we doing today, what are we doing next week?’ Some of them are hesitant because they are not familiar with the material,” said Cho, who hopes to be an elementary or high school art teacher. “Now, they understand the kinds of materials out there. They like art and they are doing projects they don’t get to enjoy during the school day.”

Alvarez art teacher Sarah Cappelli always wanted to establish an art club at the school. Project Open Door, she said, offers extra access to the arts for all students and provides a great opportunity for future art teachers. “I’m so happy to bring this program to our school,” she said.

Portfolio classes expose students to RISD faculty, studios and materials

Back in Washington Street, upstairs in the art studio, bright light streams in from large windows with a view of downtown Providence and the RISD campus. Students in 9th-11th grade, some returning from previous years in the program, chat as they work as part of a shared community.

These students in Clara Lieu’s Portfolio Class first visited the RISD Nature Lab and then made etchings. They are onto their second project, designing and constructing stairs from foam core and interpreting the design as a two-dimensional collage. The project teaches design principles such as repetition and composition and the students were required to first sketch their designs. For their next project, the students will be drawing from models.

Alvaro Morales of Mt. Pleasant High School draws a reflection of the eye during the senior portfolio class.

Alvaro Morales of Mt. Pleasant High School draws a reflection of the eye during the senior portfolio class.

While most high school art students initially show talent in drawing, Project Open Door exposes them to new mediums and materials. “This is not what you would do in high school,” said Sproll. “This is what you would do in your first year at a college or university.”

“This class is being taught by college faculty in a college studio so it is basically a college course being adapted to high school students. We are raising their expectations. When you raise the bar, students will meet it.”

For Alvarez freshmen Abenda Sohn, Project Open Door is like a job. “This is a good opportunity to prepare for my future as an artist,” he said. “I’m working with different mediums and exploring my options. This is my love and I’m happy to come.”

As Cheeks worked on her staircase, she reflected on her second year in Project Open Door and the collegial atmosphere of like-minded students. “I like coming to be with other people who do different kinds of work and talk about it. I feel like I’m at home. I am trying new things I haven’t done.”

She says she is used to the early Saturday mornings. “It’s good preparation for my future and it makes me happy to get up early every Saturday and come.”

Carlos Mendez of JSEC demonstrates a drawing machine he developed for his senior portfolio class at RISD.

Carlos Mendez of JSEC demonstrates a drawing machine he developed for his senior portfolio class at RISD.

According to Allen, freshmen, sophomores and junior portfolio students are guided with assignments while senior portfolio students are self-directed. Sproll concurs, explaining that portfolio students are more grounded in the basics of art design with a focus on drawing. In Senior Portfolio, they are developing their identity as an artist and preparing their portfolios for college, which should include 12-20 pieces displaying a range of work.

In the senior portfolio class, in the basement of RISD’s Washington Square building, the atmosphere is quiet as students work on their individual projects, ranging from designing comic strips, sculptures, drawings and even developing their own drawing machines.

Seniors work under the supervision of Robin Wiseman who also teaches in RISD’s Pre-College Program, a residential summer program for high school students. His philosophy is to trust the artistic capacity of young students and let them create. “They have different ways of doing things. I let it happen but offer support. If they stumble, they’ll learn from it. I want to see what they come up with. I let the students direct their education and not make it structured. These students are motivated and they are open to their imaginations.”

Classical senior Clio Byrne-Gudding was sculpting a profile of a human head using reed that she soaked in water to make it more pliable, and balsa, soft wood strips. She hopes to attend a college or university with a strong art program.

Professor Paul Sproll, creator of Project Open Door at RISD and head of the Department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design.

Professor Paul Sproll, creator of Project Open Door at RISD and head of the Department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design.

Xavier LeGrand of Mt. Pleasant worked on a design sketch that fit inside a hand. “This is a very positive environment,” he said. “It gives you an opportunity to be exposed to this institution.”

Brianna Brooks, another Classical senior, participated in Project Open Door as a freshman and sophomore and is “super happy” to be back. She loves the sense of community and energy that the program offers. “It’s important to be around other artists,” she said.

Carlos Mendez, a senior at JSEC, was recommended for Project Open Door by his art teacher, Susan Garland. He has never taken art lessons, but with only an introductory art class offered at JSEC, Mendez is thrilled to have an opportunity to develop his portfolio at RISD.

“This program will definitely open doors,” he said. “I want to get better every day.”

Mendez is developing a drawing machine, similar to a pendulum. Ink is placed in a container and creates a design on paper attached to a large clipboard on the floor. Different colors can be added and the width of the opening changes the design.

Garland was pleased to hear about Project Open Door as an opportunity for talented students who are serious about art. She sees few students majoring in art or going to art schools. “Very often, art keeps kids in school,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to develop a portfolio, which is a requirement for art school or a good art program at a regular college. This class is offering college-level work and gives students an opportunity they wouldn’t get if they rely on art programs at the high school level. They are developing skills and learning about college and career options.

“It’s powerful to be immersed in that environment,” she said. “It flips the switch.”

Alvarez freshman Abenda Sohn works on his collage in the RISD art studio.

Alvarez freshman Abenda Sohn works on his collage in the RISD art studio.

Project Open Door is the strongest it’s ever been in the ten years since its creation, said Sproll. “When that group of boys from Hope High School arrived one day, we felt committed to provide young people in urban high schools with the opportunity to expand their art education and to support them in going to college.

“We are thrilled when students are accepted to RISD, but we’re also happy when they are accepted to any other college. It’s getting to college that’s important.”

Nearly ten years after its creation, Sproll says he is enjoying the program a great deal. “I have been able to build a cohort of college faculty to teach who have worked with freshmen and know high school students. This is an important part of my work. It keeps me real and authentic. We can see that we’re affecting teens in a very direct way.”

Project Open Door is free to all students and is funded by the Angell Foundation and the Surdna Foundation.

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