Right In The Middle of It

Right In The Middle of It

I am an educator, but I am also a Portlander. I love my city and always make sure to pay attention to what is happening around town for personal reasons, but also look for events, exhibits, and occurrences that connects to what our learning community is working with at that moment in time. It is such a great opportunity to visit places outside of the classroom that could offer us more to chew on, more perspectives, and more ideas. The Willow Classroom of fourth- and fifth-graders were lucky enough to connect with two art exhibits this fall that connected to our big ideas of perspective-taking and social justice.

Hank Willis Thomas’s All Things Being Equal… exhibit at Portland Art Museum is a huge multimedia exhibition dealing with themes of racism, gun violence, and civil rights with the intention of raising critical awareness in the ongoing struggle for social justice and civil rights.  

The Presence of Color, a new exhibit by local Portland artist Jeremy Okai Davis, was part of the Stumptown Artist Fellowship showing at their downtown cafe. This show included six large-scale inspired by Kodak’s Shirley Cards that address social injustices such as historical inclusion and exclusion.

My intention for our visit to these exhibits was to deepen our yearlong themes of perspective-taking, democracy, and history.  Through the various forms of expression, I wanted to invite the children to critically think about the stories and messages that Thomas and Davis had curated for the public.  I was excited to imagine this community of 9, 10, and 11 year-olds thinking alongside the powerful images and subtle ways both artists invite the viewer to look at history and the world through different lenses and lesser-known perspectives and stories.

I was also a little nervous.  I was unsure how to correctly inform our parents that I wanted to expose their children to these big ideas for a very important purpose and that their children were ready and able to chew on important and heavy topics such as racism, gun violence, and the prison system. I provided the parents with a lot of background information and thinking that supported our intentions and our work and how these art experiences would help the children work towards making meaning and solidifying understanding about our world – the past, the present, and the future.

As we entered the first gallery at Portland Art Museum, we stepped into a giant room that had a series of blue strips hanging from the ceiling in a circular formation.  Each strip was adorned with embroidered stars. I invited the whole group to silently and carefully enter the work of art and take a seat. From here, we silently observed and felt the hugeness of this piece.  Some children took it all in through focused observation, while others documented their notice and wonderings.

I notice the stars are white on blue like the American flag, but no red.

I notice that one flag doesn’t have stars going all the way to the bottom.

I wonder if they are organized in a way that there are gaps to represent strips, it is like a remix of the American Flag.

I wonder what the stars represent.

I notice that inside I feel safe like how America is supposed to feel, but there’s gaps to let in others and scary things.

I then read from the artist’s statement.  The piece was named 14,719 and the huge banners that rose thirty feet above the floor contained that many stars – each star representing a person shot and killed by someone else in the United States in 2018. This work is inspired by the death of his cousin, Songha Thomas Willis, which changed him as an artist.

In his statement, Willis Thomas explains:

The word ‘art’ means something different to me now.  It offers a little bit of hope for answers or at least poses better questions.  I have struggled for two decades to find creative ways to deal with my cousin’s murder and the larger fascination with guns in our society.  There have been more than 200,000 people killed by guns in the country since my family lost Songha. It is impossible to measure the magnitude and impact of this societal loss.  While this installation is a memorial to the thousands of people who were killed by guns in 2018, it also pays homage to countless loved ones who carry perpetual grief and trauma as unacknowledged victims of gun violence in America.

After I read that statement to the children, it was as if all the air was sucked out of the room. The children’s eyes immediately went back to all the stars that surrounded them at that moment and fell silent. They then took to their notebooks as they collected what they were currently experiencing.

When I’m in the middle of it, I’m literally and figuratively in the middle of it.

“It made me feel safe – but now that I know that each star represents someone who felt safe but wasn’t, I don’t really feel that now.”

As we continued in the exhibit, we came upon pieces where Hank Willis Thomas took an original image and reworked – or remixed – them in order to highlight a certain story, event, or people. I hoped that the children were noting the invitation by the artist to think deeper and search for the message, story, and ideas that he was playing with.


I can only see the American flag at first, but with the flash, it tells a different story.

If you take a photo with your flash, you see the horrible side and it shows that America was breaking down and people were not using their rights properly.

It tries to hide it.

He wanted to hide it and have you uncover it. 

I think he’s saying that [prison] is still a maze we’re getting through.

The people are stuck in the maze and it’s not equal and they are trying to figure the way out and it’s like they are trying to make things equal.

I notice the texture of the painting. It’s like a quilt.

I wonder if his cousin liked basketball.

I wonder if the teams he chose shared a certain story.

I wonder if the NBA jerseys are from places with a lot of gun violence.

At Stumptown, Jeremy Okai Davis chose to do his on remixing by taking the idea of Kodak’s Shirley Cards and reimagining them. In Kodak’s version used for calibrating skin tones during film processing starting in the 50s, darker complexions were disregarded and set the tone for the bias and prejudices of society as a whole. Through paintings of African American women in place of the “standard” Shirley, Davis is addressing the idea of inclusion and creating spaces for everyone to be seen.

Well, his art seems like his strength and what he likes to do was creating people.  I think he may have chosen people because maybe the people he chose affects him or they mean a lot to him, or maybe because everyone can relate to seeing or being human or a person, no matter what race you are or gender or religion

Shirley Cards can only capture one skin tone and I think that this is showing how they should capture all of them.

She looks happy because now she gets to be seen and in a good picture…how does it feel to be noticed and not noticed? 

During their visits outside of the classroom and into the world, the children were able to bring the big ideas of perspective-taking, listening with empathy, paying attention beyond the master narrative, and social justice alongside them. As they stood in front of these big (both in size and content) pieces, they were able to recognize the harmful impact of bias and injustice in this world through the specific stories these artists highlighted. In our work forward, we hope to continue to think and explore within these ideas as we work to create a space where the children are empowered to take a stand against society’s wrongs happening in our surroundings now.

Reader, if you are in the Portland area and have seen Hank Willis Thomas’s exhibit what are some themes and ideas are you pulling from what you experienced? How could you use those themes and ideas with your work with children?

If you are in the Portland area and have not seen the exhibit yet, please make sure to visit the Portland Art Museum before January 12, 2020! Also, Portlanders, you can see more of Jeremy Okai Davis’s work in 2020.


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