Ypsilanti students prepare for exhibit of their artwork in Washington, D.C.

When Ypsilanti Community High School art teacher Lynne Settles received a phone call from a former student saying that the U.S. Department of Education wanted to host an exhibit of Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) students' art, she thought it was a joke.


While talking to DOE staff in Washington, D.C., about their Student Art Exhibit Program, the former student had suggested that the DOE feature students from the school district he'd graduated from.


"He said I was going to get an email in about 30 minutes, and I didn't believe it until the email came through," Settles says.


When the show opens in May 2020, it will be the first time any school from Michigan has been featured in the Student Art Exhibit Program, which has been in operation since 2004. The program features rotating exhibits of student art at the DOE's gallery in D.C.


More than 60 Ypsi elementary, middle school, and high school students had their work chosen to be on display for about six months, starting in May next year. Most of those students and about a dozen chaperones will travel to D.C. May 13-17 and celebrate the opening of the exhibit on the 14th. The Ypsilanti Community Middle School choir has also been invited to join the trip and sing at the reception.


Art teachers across the school district chose students in a variety of ways, making sure that each grade level and each building would be represented. Some teachers extended a personal invitation to young artists, while others chose the best responses to a class assignment with the theme of "diversity, equality, and justice." A community jury event in December also helped narrow down the choices.


"We gave judges a rubric for them to look at the artwork so they could choose pieces that were good examples of the themes of diversity, equality, and justice, as well as composition and overall skill," says Ypsilanti International Elementary School art teacher Kathy Fisk.


Even pupils who weren't chosen for the exhibit gained some insights from exploring those themes, according to Heidi Shelton, art teacher at Perry Early Learning Center. She says one student's mom, who is also a paraprofessional at Perry, took the opportunity to spend "extensive time" discussing justice and equality with her sons.


"It opened up the door for her to have a good, teachable moment with her boys," Shelton says.


Senior Shelby Ray is one of the students whose art was chosen and who will be making the trip in May. She made four colored-pencil art pieces that will be part of the exhibit, two on the theme of diversity and two on equality. Ray says she is looking forward to traveling somewhere she's never been before, particularly to such a large city.


"I haven't traveled much, and that's what makes this so exciting," she says. "I hope to be able to meet new people and embrace the experience of new things. I'll be able to say my art was displayed in Washington, D.C. It's such an honor."


Junior Princess Blackburn wants to pursue photography after high school. She considers the trip and the exhibit part of her "professional development."


"I believe this is a great way to get on the right track to being a successful artist," Blackburn says. "Sure, (most) artists don't make very good money, and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to do it, so you have to put yourself in the right place at the right time. This is a calling for me."


Blackburn says she wanted to highlight the topic of diversity with her photograph, which shows scars on her arms from self-harm, but themes of justice and equality also were on her mind during the creation of the piece.


"I really feel like it falls deeply into the category of diversity. Our mental illnesses and differences are what makes us diverse," she says. "Also, people aren't getting fair treatment when it comes to mental illness."


Blackburn adds that she is especially excited about the art produced by younger students.


"They're just getting out into the world, just starting to see what's around them, so their interpretations of justice, equality, and diversity are honestly astonishing," she says. "As a fifth grader, I wasn't thinking about justice and equality. I was thinking about what I'd be eating for dinner that night. So the fact that these children know what justice and equality are … is impressive."


YCS' art department is currently in fundraising mode. All students who want to go on the trip are required to find at least two sponsors to partially or completely cover their travel costs.


Additionally, a number of area businesses and organizations have helped with donations or special fundraiser events. One of the largest donations was $5,000 from the Ypsilanti Rotary Club, while the Ladies Literary Club held a wine and cheese event specifically to raise funds to cover the middle school choir's expenses.


Parents and community members have also been pitching in with a wide variety of fundraising events. One family did a lemonade stand during First Fridays in June and donated proceeds. A Facebook fundraiser netted $2,500. Parents and community members have hosted garage sales and Tupperware parties to raise funds as well.


The next opportunity for community members to see all the student artwork in one place is during a Washtenaw County Democratic Party reception/fundraiser from 5-9 p.m. Oct. 10 at the party's offices at 418 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi. Visitors can make donations at the door or through an online crowdfunding campaign aiming to raise $5,000. The art will remain on display, with the exhibit open to the public from 1-4 p.m. daily through Nov. 6.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.