For teens, feeling disconnected from one’s peers, parents, and school is par for the course. In some ways, this disconnect can be a good thing: as teens move away from these childhood bonds, they begin a process of self-discovery and self-realization, figuring out who they are and who they want to be in the process. For me, feeling disconnected from the general atmosphere of my high school led me into museums and the arts, where I created a more honest and enduring identity for myself through this new creative outlet. But for many teens, this feeling of disconnect doesn’t lead anywhere. They drop out of one group, burn their educational bridges, and never end up finding a new outlet for their talents. And it’s a shame that the years in which we are at our most volatile, when we are in such a profound state of flux, are often the years that set us on our path toward the future.
Our Community Partners at YWCA run a program for ninth graders at Murray Bergtraum High School, in downtown Manhattan, called Fresh Start. The program works with ninth graders who, on arrival at the school, are already in danger of becoming disconnected from the general student body, and finds new and creative ways to reconnect them with their school and educational framework. For the last two years, I’ve been working with the program’s staff and students to create an ongoing series of large-scale mural projects. Painted directly onto the walls that surround the school’s lunchroom area, these murals are a chance for incoming freshmen to create an immediate and direct connection with their school, in the process making their mark on their surroundings, and letting their unique experiences be known to the rest of the school.
To prepare for this project, students from Fresh Start took a series of tours to MoMA, during which we looked at works from the collection and different special exhibitions on view. For the first year’s project, students were drawn to Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), specifically his depiction of the vibrant energy of New York City. They expanded upon Mondrian’s vision by adding portraits that reflect the diversity of the Murray Bergtraum student body. For this year’s project, the students were inspired by Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 (1950) and Number 1A, 1948 (1948), adapting the artist’s “drip” method of painting by using the Murray Bergtraum school colors of red, yellow, and black. In both cases, students not only learned about modern art, they were also able to take that new knowledge back into their school and use it to create something inspiring.
In two more years, we hope to have Murray Bergtraum’s entire lunchroom filled with MoMA-inspired murals. That would be one complete cycle of high school students, from freshman to senior, who have contributed to the artistic landscape of their school. MoMA connecting students to art, art connecting students to schools, and students connecting art to their lives… no disconnect there.