Dilated pupils

Jul 7, 2004 at 12:00 am

From innocent crayon drawings of peace doves to violent recollections of a rape, the works in Visions of Peace 2004 are an eye-opening sample of what Michigan children are saying through art.

The annual exhibit, on display at Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery in Detroit, celebrates the rights of children that were codified in international law in 1989 by the United Nations General Assembly. Among them: the right to affection, love and understanding; to full opportunity for play and recreation; to free education; and to be brought up in a spirit of peace and universal brotherhood.

Marilyn Zimmerman, an art professor at Wayne State University who’s been involved with the show for five years, can’t think of a better way to explore those themes than through art.

At a time when grants for the arts have been ravaged, she says, this exhibit shows how making art can be not only important and powerful, but necessary to a child’s education.

“Art teaches creative problem-solving,” Zimmerman says. “It gives children a voice. It gives them a greater means of communication and more self-esteem.”

Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed activist and feminist, curated the show with WSU intern Beth Wyrybkowski. Sponsors include the Lillian Mellen Genser Peace and Human Rights Through the Arts program and the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at WSU.

Visions of Peace was founded in 1985 by Lillian Mellen Genser. Now retired, Genser, who was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000, was the longtime director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and a pioneer in the cause for peace and human rights education.

This, says Zimmerman, is her legacy — a collaboration between educators and children, who interpret and envision the world through the eyes of children.

The gallery’s high-ceilinged first floor is perfect for the larger pieces, including “Self Portraits,” a four-panel mural depicting a sea of faces — in vivid blues, reds, yellows, browns and whites — of the students of St. Benedict Elementary School in Highland Park.

“Each of the kids painted their self-portrait,” Zimmerman says. “It instills ideas about collectivity, group identity, peace and cooperation.”

The mural will become a permanent installation at the school when the exhibit ends.

“It makes art visible in a time when the art and music programs are sometimes the first to be cut,” Zimmerman says. “Many schools don’t have any art programs.”

Equally dominating and more arresting is an 8- by 12-foot anti-war mural called “Facing Iraqis: Collateral Damage” created by members of the Greater Lansing Youth for Peace and Justice. The background is made of yellowing newspaper clippings related to the war in Iraq, representing, according to the group’s statement, how the media have made Iraqis faceless to us.

Some stories and headlines are mounted to stand out, including “Likely to Be Murdered” and “Slaying.” Faces, created with papier-mâché molds and covered with newsprint, protrude into the space; a baby’s cheek reads “Help.” A walking stick, a plastic flower, the toes of shoes and fabric for a skirt bring the mural to life.

The vast numbers of works vary widely both thematically and artistically. “Story Worlds” are intensely colorful, circular-shaped mixed-media collages and painted images on wood. Booklets accompanying the works include stories the children wrote about the art. It was created through the Detroit Connections Project, a collaboration involving the School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan and two Detroit public schools. This project focused on storytelling. “The Dotted World” tells of a fantastical trip to a zoo; “Just One Person” is a simple tale that ends, “And that is the story of Bill.”

A quilt created by students at Detroit’s Dickinson East Elementary School and funded by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs features a patchwork of 35 paintings by the kids. Nearby, a three-dimensional palm tree, created by students at Barbour Magnet Middle School in Detroit, is made of green and brown paper cards layered to appear like bark and leaves with sayings like: “Peace is No Drugs and Guns.”

On the gallery’s second level, white, hand-sewn doves hang from the ceiling like a mobile. Lining the walls are simple, colorful drawings and mixed-media collages. Affixed to the works are the artists’ school pictures with their names, ages and what they want to be doing by the year 2030. “I want to be a ballerina and a firefighter,” scribbles a 5-year-old girl. Another, age 6, writes, “I want to be a pet doctor.”

They are sweet, innocent. They do not prepare you for what you find in the adjacent room, works from students at Detroit’s Amelia Earhart Middle School. Amid gentle drawings of doves is “Spirit Ship: In homage to my uncle whose spirit is in peace; he was beaten to death as a result of road rage in a fender bender.” The student uses stone slabs to erect a sculpture, beside which rests the booklet, “Celebrating the Life…” from her uncle’s funeral with his obituary.

Even more disturbing are the works of another student whose simple use of white cursive writing on black paper leaves you wondering if she understands the impact of her art. They are words about her rape: “I said no…,” “Please stop…,” “If you love me you would….”

Zimmerman says she hopes the show is accessible, educational and inspiring.

“The show gives the kids a platform to speak and show they have a lot of heart and wisdom,” she says. “They are our future and if we give them a platform, we shouldn’t be surprised by what we see.”


Visions of Peace 2004: A Metropolitan Children’s Exhibit of Art Interpreting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child runs through July 24, at Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery, 33 E. Adams, north of Grand Circus Park and west of Comerica Park; call 313-963-7575 for more information. Free parking is available behind the gallery.

Ellen Piligian is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]