Volume 17 • Issue 30 | Dec. 17 - 23, 2004


Downtown Express photo by Jennifer Bodrow

Artwork by I.S. 89 students Latreesha Overton, Robby Duran and Omari Gibson was on display last week at the school.

Civil War-inspired art at I.S. 89

By Divya Watal

Learning about the Civil War – that tumultuous era in American history that saw the nation cleaved in two – could be a facile exploration of North vs. South, good vs. bad, anti-slavery vs. pro-slavery.

However, eighth graders at I.S. 89 in Battery Park City take no such short cuts. For them, layers and complexities are ingrained in Civil War issues, and abstract art is the only apposite medium to convey them.

“The white cloth is for victory, but it’s covered in blood. It’s supposed to be a happy ending, but it’s really not,” said eighth-grader Jenean Criscitiello, explaining her artwork, titled “Covered in Red,” which she conceived with three of her classmates. It sat on one of 20 tables in a long hall of I.S. 89 for the school’s eighth grade art exhibition, “Seeds of Disunion: The Road to the Civil War,” last Thursday.

“The red liquid represents blood – the blood of slaves and soldiers who died in the war,” continued Criscitiello, expounding the symbolism of a tub of red paint in the middle of a large board divided into two sections – the North and the South. The little white boat, struggling to stay afloat in the “river of blood”, represents the slaves’ escape from fetters to freedom, she said.

The exhibition was part of a new school effort to integrate different areas of study, this one being a combined effort of literacy and social studies departments, said Christina DiZebba, one of the two teachers who worked with students and organized the show.

“It’s really a pilot project, and we hope to continue it next year as well,” she said. “The kids demonstrated a great deal of sophisticated thinking and analysis – they really tried to understand the causes [of the Civil War]. We just gave them ways to think, without telling them what to think.”

The artwork, designed by groups of three or four students, was based on interpreting maps, art, charts, primary and secondary sources and historical fiction. The end result was a smorgasbord of thought-provoking, graphic images, showing diverse elements and perspectives that contributed to the fracture and rebuilding of the United States.

“The water at the bottom represents the whole United States; the waterfall shows the battles – it’s powerful like the army; and the rocks are the issues that split the country apart,” said Jian Cong, one of three student artists who made “The Civil River” – a metaphoric overview of the war.

A pump, inside a cardboard mountain, was supposed to generate real water for the waterfall, but the contraption unfortunately malfunctioned at the last minute, Cong said. The water would have flowed through cracks in the rocks, which the artists had split beforehand, to strike viewers with the visual symbolism.

Another eighth grader, Edy Florio, explained “Different Methods, Same Punishment,” her team’s effort at illustrating the draconian treatment that blacks received in the South as well as in the North.

“Our teacher wanted us to make it less literal. The bumpy ball of clay represents the bumpy ride for slaves,” she said, elucidating the significance of the brown mass with wart-like protrusions decorated with bits of cotton, resting at the center of the artwork splattered with blood-red paint.

Her mother, Angel Florio, gazed at the creation admiringly. “I think what they’ve done is incredible. The first impact for me was, ‘Wow! I’m at MoMA!’ It’s so expressive and abstract – they really get it,” she said.

“You have your doubts about education in New York these days, so this is heartening,” she added.

“We were taken aback by it – there’s so much maturity to it. It’s far beyond their years,” said another parent, Mary Leach. “They’ve proven through these innovative, multimedia demonstrations that they understand complex ideas,” her husband, David, added.

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