Spread across 22 chalk paintings are the stories of real people — personality profiles created by Wrightson Ridge middle school students as part of an art project.
Students interview people, taking details from their lives to explore a new medium of pastel chalks. They gathered notes and photos related to their subject’s life to tell a story through visual art.
Middle school art teacher Rebecca Oravec said she didn’t have much experience with chalks but when the students in her art enrichment class explained what they wanted to learn most, the medium stood out.
“I asked the kids, ‘If I could provide you with any kind of project, something you’ve never done before, what would you want to do,’” she said. “They wanted to work with chalk pastels.”
Oravec learned about the nonprofit CommunityShare last year. The nonprofit organization provides grants to their fellowship teachers and offers a library of volunteers and local residents with skills that could be used for community projects.
“I got a grant from CommunityShare for all the materials — high-quality pastels, paper, fixative and we even had leftover money for glass frames as they are giving the finished project to the person they interviewed,” she said.
CommunityShare Director and Founder Josh Schachter said this project exemplifies what their organization looks to support.
“Our mission is for teachers to co-design and plan real world, community-engaged learning experiences with students,” he said. “This artist, Ken, and Rebecca, they connected and were co-designing how students could learn to do portraiture with skills Ken could bring to class and to bring a skill set to students.”
Oravec worked with local painter Ken Requard to transform the project from simply portraits, to paintings that are composites of different aspects of their interviewee’s life.
He is just one of many community volunteers CommunityShare has in their “library.”
“We consider everyone has something valuable to offer, whether that’s the grandmother with neighborhood history or an astrophysicist, they are equally valuable and their contributions can help support learning,” Schachter said. “We reach out or folks reach out to us. Parents can sign up as parents have a lot of knowledge.”
He’s hopeful to engage more people in the Green Valley area with Community Share’s mission.
Requard is a Tucson painter with a focus on Southwestern landscapes and the impressionist style. The project at Wrightson Ridge is the first he has done through CommunityShare, though he has done art workshops and worked with another art teacher in Tucson over the course of a school year.
He was listed on CommunityShare about two years.
“I just love art and have a passion for art,” he said. “I wanted to find an opportunity to pass on that passion and CommunityShare is just a potential way to connect with art teachers who would like some assistance.”
Working through it
The student group worked on their pieces for about three months with Requard providing mentorship. He helped in the planning of the project, picking the right materials, giving demonstrations on the application of the chalks and one-on-one guidance.
“It was fun,” he said. “They were very talented and attentive and focused, and they generally desired to learn more. They were very open to suggestions I had and it was all around a very enjoyable experience.”
Requard said seeing students engaged with art was inspirational.
“It encourages me to see schools that are encouraging the arts in general, especially visual arts, when so many of them have dropped art programs,” he said. “It’s encouraging to me to know some are finding it to be important. I think for me it stimulates the creativity of young people perhaps more so than other work they do.”
He’s hopeful to do more projects like this one in the future.
Seventh-grader Olivia Rodriguez, 13, chose to feature her grandmother for the project.
“It was a long process,” she said. “I had to get all the details, had to transfer the details on paper, rearrange it, get all the colors correct. I got to learn new things I didn’t really think about before.”
Rodriguez has already given the painting to the grandmother and is currently working on an abstract self-portrait with the mentorship of Requard.
“I enjoy art because I get to be myself and draw whatever I like and just be natural,” she said.
Oravec has big dreams for her art enrichment program moving forward. While the chalk art project is complete, she said there is still a lot more the students want to learn, and buying all the needed materials isn’t cheap.
“Being a new school, my entire program is based mostly around donations and grants,” she said. “The students are especially influenced by social media — the TikTok artists, Instagram artists — they want to learn what other people are learning outside Sahuarita, big city art projects, as I call them.”
Special markers for blending colors can cost $60.
“For me as a teacher, when it comes down to I have $100 in my budget I’m going to buy cheap markers because I want everyone to have markers and I have one set of really nice markers,” she said.
Along with financial donations, Oravec said she is interested in finding more community partners like Requard.
“If any community member feels passionate about sponsoring a project or art makers who want to come in and do community projects like this I’m 100 percent open to it,” she said. “I’d love for kids to see real people who live here and make incredible things.”
Oravec knows art can enrich the lives of young people, and during the pandemic her classroom and the painting materials inside provided students with a way to express themselves and their unique experience in a strange school year.
“I think especially with sixth- and seventh-graders, I’m teaching them to use their own inspiration, emotions and feelings in their art so by time they’re in eighth grade they just need a piece of paper in front of them,” she said.