Creating resiliency: Pilot program combines art, Black culture and emotional strength, culminates in student exhibit at CAM

Ava Delong’s piece from Trask Middle School. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A new pilot program has 7th-grade students learning about Wilmington’s Black culture and history, processing resiliency, and expressing it via art. Around 60 student works are on display at Cameron Art Museum through Apr. 18. as part of “Just Us.”

The curriculum recently was implemented by six teachers from D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy, GLOW Academy, DREAMS Center for Arts Education, the Brigade Boys and Girls Club, Myrtle Grove Middle School and Trask Middle School. Students made various works — collages, imitative metal sculptures and cross-stitch art — some that showcase a word or imagery indicative of their own stories of resiliency. They also recorded art talks explaining the motivations behind the creations.

According to Just Us curriculum writer Dr. Janna Siegel Robertson — a local artist and muralist who teaches at UNCW’s Watson School of Education, and specializes in arts education and emotional and social learning — Just Us was the brainchild of Kimberley Cheatham out of UNCW’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.


“She had an idea of pairing an artist up with community partners and then doing lessons in the schools,” Robertson told Port City Daily.

The program has been a collaborative effort with the Harrelson Center, UNCW Office of the Arts, UNCW Restorative Justice Collaboration, Girls Rocking in the South, Turning the Wheel, and Working Narratives. Robertson guided the creation of Just Us with two Watson School of Education graduate students, Schala Harper and Kia Thompson, over the last six months.

With the help of Fidias Reyes, executive director at the UNCW Office of the Arts, the program centered around North Carolina sculptor Dare Coulter’s latest work, “Because It’s Time.” The metal sculpture is set to be installed on UNCW’s campus, and was made in response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.

A drawing of Dare Coulter’s “Because It’s Time,” a metal sculpture slated to be installed on UNCW’s campus in honor of Black Lives Matter later this year. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“It’s a play on the Confederate soldier monument — except it’s all Black culture,” Robertson said. 

The sculpture includes imagery of Black Lives Matter protesters, Gullah Geechee people working riverside with Indigo dye, black cowboys — “because, you know, the original cowboys were Black slaves to the animal husbandry,” Robertson said — and two Black people illustrated as Atlases on the sides, “holding up” the sculpture, while other protesters are bowed down underneath at its foundation.

In this context, Robertson said it could be seen as a representation of “our town [being] built on Black backs and Black bodies.” 

Coulter touched on that as well in a 15-minute art talk about her sculpture, which was shown to the students as part of Just Us. 

“In my sculpture, there’s a concept of people holding on their backs entire institutions; the way that slavery worked in America was we had Black people — I was going to say ‘Americans,’ but they were not treated as citizens . . . and we have a lot of things built on the backs of those people who were unfairly taken from their homes,” Coulter said.

At the heart of her sculpture, though, Coulter said it represents people overcoming trials and tribulations — finding strength and wherewithal to keep going in spite of hardships.

“Resilience is so vital to my life as an artist and a Black person,” she noted. “Getting back up after being knocked down is a part of life — everyone’s life.” 

The biggest challenge in creating the curriculum, Roberston said, was making sure the content remained middle-school appropriate. Teachers were encouraged to delve into various historical topics relevant to Wilmington’s Black history, including the coup of 1898, the Gullah culture, civil rights, and even the Confederacy and Civil War. 

Yet, Roberston designed it so teachers could properly approach topics that tend to be controversial or triggering. 

“I don’t think social justice is traumatic,” Roberston clarified. “I think students need to learn about different cultures and groups and justice. We’re also looking to adapt [Just Us] with Native American and Asian groups in future projects.” 

By integrating resilience at the base of its programming, Robertson said it can teach students healthy ways to process their own emotions and reactions to stress, to be better equipped to act responsibly, show empathy, apply positive attitudes and knowledge to life situations, and maintain relationships as they mature. The Just Us curriculum shares techniques with educators who can teach students “how to control [their] breathing, how to get [themselves] back in the zone” when faced with stressful situations. 

Glow Academy art teacher Greyson Davis speaking at the opening of Just Us at Cameron Art Museum on Thursday, Apr. 1. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

There are movement activities listed on the curriculum’s web portal for teachers to follow as well — reset and centering exercises to help should any topic get too heavy.

“But, let me tell you, it’s bigger than that,” Robertson said of the lesson plan. The real girth comes in reflecting back to students their innate potential. 

Robertson offered three arts projects for teachers to present to students. Some asked them to choose a word they most resonated with as they rebounded from something monumental in their lives. The students then created a collage out of paper plates, glue, yarn, and India ink — or they made a frame with found objects to highlight their words. Others chose to make their own “atlases” out of soda bottles and found objects. All three were created to emulate a metal sculpture like Coulter’s “Because It’s Time.”

Over at Myrtle Grove Middle School, Carolyn Phillips took a different approach altogether. She created a cross-stitch project, wherein students hand-dyed fabric Indigo, in homage to the Gullah Geechee culture, then designed and stitched their own atlases onto the canvases.

Robertson said she will add this art lesson option to the curriculum lineup, which she hopes will launch nationwide by summer.

“The goal is any educator worldwide can implement this in their classrooms and learn something about Wilmington history,” she said.

Kimoya Peterson’s cross-stitch piece, featuring a design of her own atlas in homage to the Gullah Geechee culture. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Glow Academy art teacher Greyson Davis said his class openly discussed the Wilmington coup, as well as the burning of Shell Island in 1926, which was the first resort in the nation built for Black people, according to the Wrightsville Beach Museum. It was destroyed by fires in some public buildings.

“Mostly, we spent a lot of time discussing persevering through obstacles that try to obstruct what’s just, continuing to fight despite any pushback,” Davis said. “Most of my students are really into anime, and comic books (which is wild dope to me!), so I think being able to create their own visuals animates their idea of what justice looks like and presents it as acts of heroism.”

Davis pointed to one student who really captivated the project’s goals. Kolby Gupton did a piece of art showcasing “the sun reflecting off the ocean, with music notes overhead,” Davis described. She included the word “silence.” 

Gupton discusses her piece in the curriculum’s art talk portion, which viewers of the exhibit can pull up on their phones and listen to while visiting CAM. Gupton revealed that “silence” represents Gupton’s love for music and the ocean, both of which feed into her escape to recharge.

“I loved being able to make this piece of art,” she said in her art talk, “but I wanted to talk about its meaning. In a way, it’s quite simple: I’ve always felt a connection to music. And while I’m not the greatest at singing, it doesn’t stop me from being able to escape to another world. I find silence in music. Now that I think about it, silence reminds me of being under water — the movement of calm it brings. That’s why I love the ocean. So I wanted to incorporate both music for movement in the waves and in the sun that teaches me to rise above all. Sounds can be powerful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t best to speak up. Power is everywhere. You just need to look in the right places.”

Another of Davis’ students, Emma Leigh, chose the word “peace,” cusped into a hand. Leigh’s art talk addresses the bullying that she has experienced for years. 

“I’ve been told I’m not worth it so many times, I started to believe the belief,” Leigh said in the audio. “As I got older, I realized I am worth it. I made my piece based off my own experience, and I made it in hopes that someone will see it and realize that they are worth it too.”

Kolby Gupton’s “Silence” represents a movement of calm as found in listening to music and looking over the water. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Davis said using art to help with the lesson plan resonated with his classroom, who already isn’t shy about speaking out and standing up for injustices when they see them happening. But the real benefit, he said, came in watching them find “strength in recognizing and sharing what gives them strength.”

It’s the crux of the assignment, according to Roberston: tying in social and emotional learning with arts integration.

“How do you make powerful people?” she asked. “Make them realize the power they already have.”

Roberston has received feedback from participants and teachers already, and is gathering data in order to modify and strengthen the pilot before its official release. She sees it evolving into other artistic outlets, too, including music, dance, poetry, and creative writing. 

“It’s a big world out there, and all this stuff is happening: We have a pandemic, there’s a social justice crisis, all these shifts are happening,” Robertson listed. “But we want this to show students, ‘Look how much you’ve already accomplished. Look how much you’ve already overcome — you already have a resilience story of how you have survived this,’ and if we look at the psychology behind it, if you have people tell their resilience stories, it’s very self-affirming. Very powerful. And it can be transformative.”


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