How art breaks down barriers and builds up communities

When Riverview East High School student classrooms moved from St. Clair to Marine City, people were leery of allowing the "alternative students" to become part of Marine City High. What influence would they have on the other students, especially those at the adjacent Marine City Middle School?

To be safe, REHS kids were given a secluded entrance at the end of a long, gray corridor.

"They didn't understand who we were," REHS art teacher Jason Stier says.

Solution: make 500 small ceramic fish and hide them throughout the town. The tokens had the name of the school on the back side. It was their way of announcing that they had arrived and weren't going to stay invisible. Several years later, they are a valued part of the community.

"These students have a lot of passion and creativity," Stier says. "Now they are tutoring in the middle school."

By now, Stier and his students have left their mark all over the St. Clair/Marine City area, including the townships within the East China School District. He and his students have steadily worked on creating community ties by making works of art. They are on display in parks, along trails and at annual art shows.

Gone are the drab entrance and "hall of shame." Now, a living wall made with rows of potted plants adorns the facade, creative signage replaces a standard sign at the back entrance, and brightly painted murals warm up the corridor.

Little Free Libraries are popular in St. Clair County. One year, Riverview East students decided to add their own flair to the movement. Now, the libraries not only house free books, but also serve as artwork.

Art's influence on a state level

Diane Wilson's love for art and culture compelled her to go after her dream to help budding artists and musicians develop their talents, while engaging and improving the quality of their local communities. Their success can lead to more success until the momentum builds into a full-blown, thriving place to visit, work and live.

Wilson is the founder and executive director of Michigan ArtShare (a partner with the MSU Extension). ArtShare "works to develop, coordinate, implement and monitor economic development strategies and community engagement activities that support the statewide strategy for cultural and economic development interests of Michigan State University." One way ArtShare works to accomplish this is by nurturing the talents of particularly gifted artists, putting them in a gallery show or building up their local venue.

Wilson speaks of a distressed area in Lansing that was transformed. ArtShare took a space that already looked like an urban gallery (like Port Huron’s Gold Rodent), built a stage, put in a sound system and made room for some art displays. Now it needed some life. It took a while -- three years -- but the effort paid off.

"We turned it around," she says. "The building owner had eight apartments upstairs and five small offices that he had refurbished but couldn’t get any tenants to move in." After the three years, there were no empty spaces left, she reports.

ArtShare has also given individuals a chance to turn their "hobby" into their main source of income. With a little coaching, information and access to funding sources, artists throughout Michigan are launching successful creative careers. Wilson often visits communities across the state to share her vision and to see what she can learn from other towns.

Wilson believes Stier and his students might be onto something with a new proposed "Block Project" challenge. Stier explains the project would give whole neighborhoods the opportunity to become artists. Stier's students are taking the lead by making their own art out of four-foot square cubes, soon to be showcased at the St. Clair Art Association, hopefully inspiring whole blocks of neighbors to get together to create their own unique art piece. They would have until next summer to complete the artwork and showcase it in a citywide Block Party next year, says Stier.

Leading by example

The ultimate goal is for whole communities to come together to work on a common project and get to know each other in the process, explains REHS student Alissa Warrack. She and fellow students Dalton Formaz, Darrin Richards, and Taylor Finley are creating a window into the world of Alice in Wonderland on a wall of the REHS 3-D square. They will include "elliptical and elusive" elements and even incorporate a real chess game.

Warrack, a junior, says she came to Riverview East last year, after coming through some rough times.

"I was not too open when I first came," she says. After a while, though, the permission to be herself and get creative worked its way into her heart. She says now she feels accepted there.

Wilson says she is keeping an eye on Stier’s Block Project, which has the potential to go statewide.

"The building block program is innovative," she says. "To bring neighborhoods together who don’t normally get together even two blocks over is big. We can watch and learn how he's doing this. He seems to be building a good foundation."

Reading, writing, math, and art

To both Wilson and Stier, art is more than an extracurricular activity. It is essential for a well-rounded education.

"Schools are cutting their arts and music programs," Wilson says, "but students who are hands-on in music and art do better in math and science. It teaches them to do creative, critical thinking in order to put their world in order."

Stier is also a member of the local St. Clair Art Association and is now the board vice president. He has found a warm welcome among the other educators and administrators at REHS, as well as the school district, municipalities and other groups that are leading the way in growing their communities. The funding available for art in St. Clair County has allowed many projects to take off.

"Our committee has received continued support from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, specifically the St. Clair Fund," Stier says. "We have also received support from the Gannett Foundation, China Township, St. Clair Women's League, Supporters of East China Schools, DTE, and countless private donors."

Grants for the arts

The Riverview East classes have partnered with a recent "Safe Routes to Schools" program in Marine City. The project was just awarded a grant for $428,000 from the Michigan Department of Transportation. Safe Routes is sponsored by the Michigan Fitness Foundation and managed by MDOT. The initiative supports kids having the option of getting some exercise and taking in the fresh air walking to school and back. Grant monies go toward creating a clear, safe pathway and REHS teens will help brighten up the scenery along the trails.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 22 will feature the combined efforts of the SCAA and Creative Placemaking for additions to the King Road-Belle River Access Park in China Township and REHS students will be there, too. Finances came from grants: $3,000 from China Township, $10,000 from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County,  $2,000 from SCAA, and $1,550 from the Gannett Foundation. The park is one of the newest recreational spaces in St. Clair County.

Art and nature, the perfect match

China Township Supervisor Linda Schweihofer traded in her paintbrush many years ago to make room for a spot on the township board. She still wholeheartedly supports the St. Clair Arts Association. Having grown up in the rural area, she has always appreciated the sights, sounds and smells that dominate living on a farm, not far from the river. She appreciates the local artwork, too, that dots some of the parks and trails, many from the young, promising artists from the alternative school. 

"I think it just enhances our environment when we are able to see art in spaces we love to recreate and play in," she says. "We incorporate and enjoy art in these places that we would otherwise have to view in a museum. But, instead, it is an enhancement to our parks.

For more information on the Block Project, go to SCAA BLOCK Project.

Jeri Packer is the editor of The Keel.