Volume 16 • Issue 48 | APRIL 23-29, 2004


Compelling Art Project at IS 89

Through self-portraits pre-teens learn art, Spanish and about themselves

Davon Robinson, a 13-year old eighth grader, explored his “inner sports lover.” Photos by Milo Hess

By Janel Bladow

The revealing self-portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kalho are helping students at IS 89 learn Spanish, how to draw and more about themselves.

“Autoretratos” are self-portraits made by the seventh and eighth grade students of Spanish teacher Lisa Grevenberg and art teacher Kathy Piscioneri. The project combines learning about the artist, learning new drawing techniques, studying and writing in Spanish, and examining their own personalities.

First the students study the life and art of Frida Kahlo and learn how to do a self-portrait of their experiences and goals that is honest and thoughtful. Next, holding up a mirror they learn how to realistically draw their faces using cray-paas, oil pastel crayons that easily blend together. Finally, they write a short text in Spanish, describing their physical and personality traits, likes and dislikes.

The seventh graders did a one-sided portrait and text while the eighth graders completed two-sided self-portraits with matching text, which is displayed as a hanging mobile. The older youngsters first discussed “dichotomy of personality” then chose two opposing sides of their personalities to depict in art and describe in text. The more than 60 two-sided portraits dangle and twist in the fifth floor hallway so that viewers can match the words with the picture. Through the exercise the kids are also learning the difference between the Spanish “ser” and “estar” – both mean “to be” but are temporary versus permanent verbs.

“They pick their own topics,” said Piscioneri. “The self-portrait is cathartic for so many of them. Taking an honest look at yourself can be horrifying at this age.”

The portraits took two weeks to complete, painting in the classroom and writing the text both in class and at home.

“Some of them took chances with the text they wouldn’t have otherwise if it wasn’t in Spanish,” said Grevenberg. “Some were messages meant just for me.”

Seventh grader Paris Leach, 12, says this isn’t the first time he’s done a self-portrait but it’s the first time it’s “actually honest.”

“I drew it with freckles and zits,” he says. “Before I would draw myself taller and good-looking.

“We held up a mirror and learned to draw the shape of our heads, eyes, hairline. Before I would draw without any dimension. In my picture, I have a soccer ball, my favorite sport and a beach, my favorite place in Italy, Ponza, where my family goes but I haven’t been yet. My hair is in my favorite style.”

His text says that he has two homes, a strong stomach because he exercises a lot, blue-green eyes, is very short and “has a scar on my forehead like Harry Potter but not from a lightening bolt.”

Davon Robinson, a 13-year old eighth grader, explored his inner sports lover and homebody. One drawing has a couch, TV and game system floating in the background while the other shows him with a basketball and wearing the jersey of his favorite player, Syracuse University’s Carmelo Anthony.

“At home, I sit on the couch a lot, play videogames and chill but the sport side of me is competitive, aggressive, never quits and ready to have fun,” he says reading his Spanish description.

Raven Jensen, also 13 and in the eighth grade, took the whole dual personalities to a new level with her portraits “Raven Metida en un Libro” and “Raven la Loca.” Her studious side reveals only her eyes and forehead as she’s “buried in a book.” Her more playful personality comes out as a four-headed monster.

“When I’m reading, I’m really absorbed and don’t hear what’s going on around me,” says the redhead. “But when I’m energized, I really go crazy, singing and jumping and dancing.”

“We were very surprised with the project,” said Piscioneri, adding that the students who they didn’t know well, they now know better. “We have a lot of blooming artists here.”

The self-portraits are on display on the fifth floor of IS 89 at 201 Warren Street through May 1. The public can view the exhibit Friday, April 30, when the school is open for a basketball game between the eighth graders and faculty. Fifteen of the portraits will also be exhibited in local storfronts during the Tribeca Film Festival.

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