Kids’ art adorns the walls of PSU’s Littman Gallery’s newest exhibit, “Welcome to My Happy Place” — but it’s not just any refrigerator art. It’s artwork created by kids in collaboration with professional artists like Hank Willis Thomas and Laylah Ali.
Among the pieces on display are neon-colored animal screen prints in the style of Andy Warhol, student-drawn portraits of classmates, and a digital quilt of photographs highlighting self-defined desires for various freedoms, including “freedom from racism” and “freedom for recess.”
The exhibit, on display through March 17, is a curated collection from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), a contemporary art museum inside the Northeast Portland pre-K-5 school. That’s right — a museum inside a school!
The Art and Social Practice project and partnership was founded by PSU professors Harrell Fletcher and Lisa Jarrett in 2014 and connects King students with internationally renowned contemporary artists through collaborative workshops, exhibitions, artists’ lectures and site-specific commissions.
At the heart of KSMoCA is possibility: Kids can see real artists with real careers who look like them.
“I wish I had a program like this when I was a kid,” says Dr. Kiara “Kiki” Hill, a visiting professor of art history in PSU’s School of Art + Design who curated the exhibit with Rose, a fifth-grader. “I was never able to speak as confidently as some of these kids do about art … so for them to be exposed to facets of the art world at such a young age, it opens up possibilities that unless you have access to those things, you may not have even thought about. The fact that at 7, 8 years old, they can confidently declare, ‘I want to be an artist, I want to be a documentarian, I want to be a curator,’ is amazing.”
Rose says KSMoCA is her happy place and gives her a space to express herself.
“I get to talk about stuff that I’m really tied up in, so when I let that out, it helps me get comfortable,” she said. “That’s why I call it my happy place.”
She worked with Hill to replicate that feeling for the PSU exhibit.
“We started by just walking around the school and I had her point out different pieces that she really liked,” Hill said. “From there, we tried to figure out how to best create the atmosphere that is in the school — one that’s magical — and bring it here.”
Hill let Rose take the lead on curation, but her two must-haves were a historical timeline of the school — believed to be the first school in the country named after the civil rights leader after students petitioned the board in the weeks following King’s assassination in 1968 — and a re-enactment of a newspaper photograph documenting the school’s name change with two students holding up a banner that reads, “Welcome to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.”
The impact KSMoCA has been able to have in the predominantly Black school in the historically Black Albina neighborhood is particularly important to Jarrett.
“We have something really special here and we have it because people are willing to work together and build it,” she said. “This community continues to sustain itself in light of all kinds of things — displacement, gentrification, historic Oregon exclusionary laws, all the reasons that Black people are both here and where historically they live in the city. That’s really important to us and we get to be part of that legacy by contributing to ongoing richness instead of ongoing extraction.”
To learn more about KSMoCA, visit http://www.ksmoca.com/