Art teacher Julia Hogue-Smith and her students from Oak Cliff’s Kimball High School are the stars of “Masks from Our Hearts of Africa” at the South Dallas Cultural Center. The project is part of National Youth Art Month and offers a glimpse into Africa and layers of interpretations. Students chose an African country at random and were charged with researching their country and creating an African mask inspired by the information they gathered. Hogue-Smith and two of her 11th grade students, Ashley Durham and Brenda Rodriguez, shared some of their thoughts and time with me for this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:
Tina Aguilar: Julia, you know a little something about teaching visual art. Tell me about your art background, students and your teaching philosophy.
Julia Hogue-Smith: I attended Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, majoring in art, as well as an additional applied associate’s degree in fashion design from Wade College here in Dallas. I taught elementary art for seven years, middle school for three, and this will be my 13th year teaching high school with 19 1/2 years in the Wichita Falls Independent School District and now over three years being here in Dallas. My students that I have now at Kimball, to tell you the truth, have opened my eyes to a lot of things going on in the world that I have not experienced or thought I ever would. I am learning because of that, more than ever, I really need to encourage them to channel that information and those experiences into their art work – even though some of them come across as being a bit resistant to the idea of art being just as important as their other subjects like math or English. For the most part, most of them really are interested and, once given a big push, do realize the connection of art to everything we do. My approach differs somewhat, because resources here are much slimmer. But I make do. The popularities of my teaching approaches go in circles, and I can’t say I use any one approach because I use a mixture or combinations that depend on the project, subject or theme.
T.A.: Can you explain the significance of the creative process for your students and how this knowledge strengthens the way they live and experience the world around them?
J.H-S.: The significance of the creative process in this project has opened their eyes, I hope, a bit wider in that even though they have not – and may not ever – visit another country, they can read, visualize and use the different art media, art elements and principles to connect that information into a work of art. They didn’t just learn about the good or nice things about these countries – they read about the struggles and the poverty. But the masks are beautiful, colorful and bursting with energy. I think that this will make them more conscious of the effort and process that goes into everything in the world around them. I think it will also boost their confidence and make them have a desire to be more willing to try and achieve things that they may have not thought they could before.
T.A.: What was the conversation like with your students to start this project?
J.H-S.: In my past I had been through a staff development process where we used Africa as a theme. In talking to students about this project, some did not realize that Africa has strong cities. I have done this with younger students, and these students are in 10th-12th grade. In part, I only have one computer in my classroom. The students were to use the computer and do research in my classroom and then come back with three drawings and detailed notes. They did this part even before they had to write about why they decided what to do. I had one student who, other than briefly in social studies, did not know much about Africa. This project made her interested in another country. Now some of the students want to travel. With the artistic process, I try to get them to understand that you can take any topic and interpret it. Creatively, they can see how multiple layers of thought and ideas tie together to create a whole.
T.A.: You talked about wanting to incorporate a few additional connections with this project. Why did you decide to focus on the masks alone?
J.H-S.: I would rather spend more time on a single project than doing too many. One of my thoughts was to add a batik assignment, but I noticed the students’ level of engagement and I stuck with it. If I gave the students a deadline and pushed them too hard about it, they wouldn’t have made these creations or made it to this point. It’s not about how many projects we do but getting students to realize they can do more than they think. At first, I did not want to show them examples of African masks, because we could not make them. The creative process had to evolve. The facial structure for the mask was unique to every student, and each mask began by taking a cast of its creator’s face. As each student could see their own features being the basis for their African mask, it easily illustrated the students’ connection to each other, no matter their ethnic background, through the birth place of the human species, Africa.
Both Brenda and Ashley shared their reflections.
T.A.: What were some things you learned about your country when you did your research?
Brenda Rodriguez: My country is Benin, and the flag colors, dry climate and rivers caught my attention. This gave me an idea of how they live and what type of climate exists with only a little bit of rainfall.
Ashley Durham: Zimbabwe is my country, and I have heard of it somewhere before. Both the flag and music are the two things that caught my attention. The flag looked like the Jamaican flag except for a big triangle. The colors represented are yellow for wealth, green is for agriculture, red is for blood, white means peace, and black is for the heritage.
T.A.: What are the other parts that represent you in your mask?
B.R.: The lips and form of the eyes. Because I wanted a connection between the colors near the eyes, I had to decide which ones had the best connections. I thought the green on blue for the cheek design looked neat, and I drew the lines before adding the color.
A.D.: The music element is big, because I miss being in band and I miss playing the drums. It’s my whole thing: art and music. I started playing in junior high and then I quit. When I was doing research, I liked the way they told stories through their music. I noticed the history and saw they had drums, and so I put those on the mask. Instead of listening to the music and hearing the stories, I put the ears in the eyes of my mask.
T.A.: How did you make these masks, and what did it feel like?
B.R.: We had to put Vaseline all over our face, and we prepared the plaster gauze. Then it took about 25 minutes to dry, and we used a combination of sandpaper to get it smooth. We kept adding gesso and kept using sandpaper until the mask was smooth and ready for us to paint.
A.D.: It felt cool, and we were nervous at first.
T.A.: What did you think when you heard about the project?
B.R.:It sounded neat, and I wanted to do it. It made me nervous to think about having my face covered.
A.D.: I was nervous that we were going to be suffocated. It was something new, and I thought it would be fun.
J.H-S.: I was surprised that none of the students gave more of a concern, because in the past I have had students hesitate more. They all went through with the process just fine.
T.A.: How did you know it was finished, and what can you tell me about how you feel about art?
B.R.:The last thing was basically the lines of the leaves. There is a lot of creativity that inspires me to do art, different colors, and shades that make me want to create. I told my mom that I made an African mask, and after I told her she said that was good.
A.D.: The ribbons were the last part to match the flag, and then I found some with the musical notes. Music is important to me – anything that has a beat and a meaning. I listen to the radio or my mp3 player as I ride the bus or train. I had to transfer on the bus twice and take the train to get here for the opening. I told my mom about being interviewed at the opening and the prospect of a job here. She liked it.
Julia Hogue-Smith continues to design art curriculum and muse about her next art teacher association project. Brenda and Ashley look forward to their next art adventures, and this summer Ashley will assist the South Dallas Cultural Center staff as a visual arts teaching assistant. In addition to “Masks from Our Hearts of Africa,” on view until May 31, visitors can enjoy “Like Father Like Son: The Art of Henry Howard Sr. & Jr.” in the main gallery space through July 3.