- Associated Press - Monday, May 22, 2017

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) - A local artist, an art coach and 147 families from 20 countries have joined forces to create an exhibit that celebrates the diversity of Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood.

Nadia Mitchell, a Burlington native and mother of two at the Integrated Arts Academy (IAA), said the family portraits and student-penned essays helped her children and their classmates honor their differences.

“They can normalize their own experiences,” Mitchell said, adding that the students who were black or with no mother or two mothers were allowed to celebrate that. “They can feel empowered and proud.”

The project is the brain-child of IAA art coach Judy Klima and was inspired originally by an art show on race she and students saw at the ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, four years ago.

“I thought expanding that to family portraits for the entire school would be an amazing display of our diversity, inclusive community and a real dialogue on Burlington and the demographic shifts over the last several years,” IAA Principal Bobby Riley wrote on Monday, about his expansion on Klima’s idea which was originally planned for one grade level.

Klima worked with Burlington City Arts Education Director Melissa Steady to find a grant of approximately $8,000, according to Steady. The school’s parent teacher organization provided funding for the frames. The BCA also helped secure Vermont photographer Michelle Saffran.

“We decided to just let the students take the lead. We would follow whatever they came up with. We just put it out there, family. And we just let them define and bring with them whoever they wanted,” Saffran said of the photography sessions.

Students and family members were asked to organize around a big vintage chair donated for the project by Valerie Lodish, who has children at the school.

“We told the kids it was a magic wishing chair,” Saffran said. Her only instruction was that they think of something positive for their families.

Principal Riley hoped that by participating in the project with their families, students would begin to intentionally connect home life to school life. That in turn, Riley thought would create a strong school community and deep sense of pride in the Old North End.

And the families will each receive a fine art print of their portraits to keep which will extend that connection.

The writing, according to Kilma, was planned separately with teachers and the district literacy coach.

Teachers used “The Family Book,” by children’s book author Todd Parr to inspire the essays. Some classes were given the writing prompt: “I have a family. So do you. So does everyone.”

“They are really popular,” a Barrio Bakery counter clerk said of the essays which appear under or alongside the photographs during the Monday morning coffee rush.

The final compositions include the details of everyday life from the point of view of an elementary school child:

“At every holiday dinner we have chicken. Why? WE LOVE IT.”

“My moms have a cat. His name is Diesel. My dad has a girlfriend. Her name is Janet.”

“Breafast is speshal to us (sic) … “

“My mom and my sister wear hijabs …”

At the Fletcher Free Library on Wednesday, a brother and sister described the process of writing drafts of their essays and a telling coincidence.

“We didn’t even plan it. It ended up with us writing about the same thing,” young Zola Haines Wager said about the fact that both of their essays included the family’s favorite game of Clue.

Charlie and Zola’s dad Adam Wager wrote in an email on Thursday that the project takes the viewer beyond simple generalizations.

“It allows us to catch glimpses of other lives, other people, other struggles. It allows us to see some of the actual similarities and some of the actual differences instead of mere politics or labels,” Wager wrote. “The more time we spend in a bubble of our own selection, the more we need art to pop it (even if only for a safe few minutes) and let us breathe.”

Locals can catch a glimpse into the lives of their neighbors, including Mayor Miro Weinberger whose children attend the arts academy, at Fletcher Free Library, City Hall, North End Studios and eateries Barrio Bakery, Chubby Muffin and Nunyuns.

The exhibit is on view until the end of May. A reception will be held at City Hall on May 23.

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Online:

http://bfpne.ws/2q4qCFR

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For more information: Burlington Free Press, www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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