From a golden shipping container, seven junior art students at Parish Episcopal School took a virtual field trip to meet Parissah Lin and Tsige Tafesse at the Africa Center in Harlem, New York.
Surrounded by darkness, students focused on a video screen, immersing themselves in an in-person-like interaction, artists speaking to artists.
The art discussion was but one of many cultural exchanges through the Portal, the technology-equipped shipping container located at Parish from January through March.
Students have studied South American marketplace economics in Bolivia, played music for Rwandans and Iraqi refugees, studied humanities with the Dutch, and practiced Spanish in Mexico.
“The Portal is a powerful opportunity for them to understand the broader mindsets and worldviews that are out there,” said head of school Dave Monaco, “to be enriched by them, to inform them, and to prepare to enter them as leaders when they leave here.”
During the art discussion, Lin and Tafesse provided feedback to the Parish students, addressing Sarah Haga’s focus on the public v. private self and Ryan Daniel’s on lightness and liberation.
“We’re a place that’s interested in innovation and where the future is heading in education.” -Dave Monaco
“Art, when you’re looking straight at it, kind of feels mildly confining,” Haga said. “Getting a critique from somebody, or getting to talk to somebody of a different background or from a different place or who has different perspectives is so beneficial, especially to us as artists and as students.”
Added Daniels, “It just broadens our perspectives on what we could do with our passion.”
Lin could relate to the pressures and stresses students face as artists, such as Haga’s “terrifying” self-portraiture in paper mache and Daniel’s discomfort with drawing people.
“Create a narrative around your work and see things you’re passionate about,” Lin advised. “Envision a life where you’re getting to do them as adults.”
On the portfolio building process, Lin suggested forming a support system through artistic collaboration.
“It’s a lonely world out here being an artist, but if you build these community strategies earlier, it makes it a more enjoyable profession,” Lin said.
Parish teacher Beka Johnson saw value in getting students outside the usual classroom setting.
“(Hearing) from a professional of a different sort that’s not a teacher, that has a different viewpoint, and just a different experience that they’re coming in with, was really helpful for them,” Johnson said.
Though the Portal has sparked curiosity, exploring the new technology hasn’t come without challenges, especially restrictive time differences.
Portal curators, like Parish’s director of libraries Leigh Ann Jones, arrange meetings and circumvent communication barriers.
With parents requesting to experience the Portal, Monaco hopes to invite the broader community. So far, Oak Hill Academy plans to connect with a special education school in California and CitySquare with a poverty center in Wisconsin.
Monaco said he is considering making the Portal a permanent fixture after the three-month trial. “We’re a place that’s interested in innovation and where the future is heading in education.”
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