Photo Essay: Kalamazoo Public Schools turn Inside Out for All-district Art Fair

Mandy Clearwaters, an art teacher at Winchell Elementary, had a vision to bring Inside Out, an international portrait project devised by French-artist JR, to Kalamazoo Public Schools. Students in the exhibition were encouraged to participate by art teachers. The theme of the project is unity and expressed in the statement, “We are Kalamazoo artists. We are innovators, dreamers, and creators,” which Clearwaters wrote.

“Art has allowed us to share who we are with the world. We are a diverse group of people using art to build bridges and understanding among the many communities that we represent. By sharing our thoughts and identities, we create a stronger and healthier future for Kalamazoo,” Clearwaters stated in a press release. "Our voices speak loud, not through our mouths, but through our hands."

A thousand KPS' students have their photos on the sidewalks of Bronson Park as part of the Inside Out Project.

The project itself required enormous team effort. The district’s diversity is represented in the 1,000 smiling, serious, and silly faces in black and white portraits that line the inner sidewalks of Bronson Park. The impactful display is part of KPS’ All-district Art Fair, which takes place from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Friday at Bronson Park. In addition to Inside Out, student artwork will be featured.

Families will gather on the opening day of the exhibition to enjoy the art, along with music, food, chalk drawing, henna tattoos and other activities, which run 4-6:30 p.m. Friday, May 19. The event is open to the public. As parents, teachers and volunteer students worked with mops and homemade wheat paste this week to affix the 4 ½ by 3-foot portraits to the cement, a sense of teamwork and collaboration was palpable.

The Inside Out portraits are part of the KPS all-district art show, which has been held in Bronson Park since the pandemic.Chrissy Brege, a Winchell art teacher who worked with Clearwaters on the project, had been busy at home making wheat paste the night before because an expected delivery of powdered paste didn’t arrive on time.

Most students won't see their portraits until Friday's All-District Art Fair, but a few helped affix the portraits to the sidewalks.In addition to the many who were scattered throughout Bronson Park, there were as many behind the scenes who took photos, edited, organized photo releases, says Brege.

Over the course of a week, parents, students, and teachers volunteered to paste 4 1/2 X 3 feet black and white student portraits on the sidewalks of Bronson Park in preparation of the All-District Art Fair on Friday, May 19. “The most valuable part of this project was bringing together, students, teachers, and parents,” says Brege. “We all came together as working artists. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Photographer Fran Dwight being interviewed about her participatino in the "We are Edison" Inside Out Project in 2017.Since 2011, more than 400,000 people from 149 countries and territories have participated in the “Inside Out” Project. This is Kalamazoo’s second “Inside Out Project.” The first, “We are Edison,” which took place in 2017, featured portrait of Edison residents attached to Washington Square buildings that were in the process of being rehabilitated. Sponsored by the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, “We are Edison” helped provide a sense of place and resident-presence in the neighborhood. Southwest Michigan Second Wave Photographer Fran Dwight, who was the photographer for the Edison “Inside Out,” also took these photos of the KPS Inside Out installation, which surely brought back a few memories.

Volunteer photographers took three photos of each student, who were then allowed to choose their favorite portrait for the project.As people worked on the project in Bronson Park Wednesday, many expressed gratitude for the dry weather. Within less than a week, a few of the portraits already had small rips or missing parts, and some were covered with pollen or speckled with leaves.

The portraits, which are intended to last from a week to three months, will go through a natural process of deterioration.Deterioration is a natural part of the project, says Brege. “The kids were informed what they were getting into with the portraits,” she says, adding that each photo was expected to last from one week to three or four months.

Students' faces — smiling, laughing, thinking, frowning, squinting — are the focus of a display of almost 1,000 black and white portraits that will line the interior sidewalks of Bronson Park in an exhibition called “It’s weird to see the photos decompose when you want them to be perfect,” said Dava Antoniotti, a mother of three who attend Winchell. “Their cute little faces. I’m trying to embrace that part of the project, but it goes against a natural part of being a parent, being a human.”

A thousand KPS' students have their photos on the sidewalks of Bronson Park as part of the Inside Out Project.As she worked, Antoniotti had already spotted two of her children’s portraits, but the third hadn’t yet been applied. Above the park, two drones were taking videos and photos, the images which she was looking forward to seeing.

Many hands make light work. A pre-ordered, powdered wheat paste was delayed and so teachers and students made handmade paste of flour, sugar, and water.“It’s such a fun project,” Antoniotti says, adding her children won’t see the exhibit until Friday. “I’m really excited for them to see it. They can’t wait.”

Students in the exhibition were encouraged to participate by art teachers and stood with the statement: “We are Kalamazoo artists. We are innovators, dreamers, and creators."The exhibit will be on display throughout the month of May. Friday’s celebration is open to the public.

Since 2011, more than 400,000 people from 149 countries and territories have participated in the Inside Out Project designed by French artist JR.
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