School’s project uses art to gain Is­lamic in­sight

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - OBITUARIES - DAVE PEROZEK

FAYET­TEVILLE — A high school art project helped stu­dents gain a new per­spec­tive by con­nect­ing them with peo­ple of the Is­lamic faith.

Fayet­teville High School stu­dents in Ash­ley Grisso’s ad­vanced place­ment world his­tory classes worked in groups of two or three. They in­ter­viewed Mus­lims in the com­mu­nity, then told their sto­ries through art.

The stu­dents’ work was on dis­play two weeks ago at the Univer­sity of Arkansas’ Kit­trell Art Gallery in the Stu­dent Union. Each piece of the “Putting a Face on Is­lam” ex­hibit was ac­com­pa­nied by a one-page artist state­ment about the work. Stu­dents and their sub­jects gath­ered one evening for a re­cep­tion at the gallery.

“It’s re­ally great to be able to un­der­stand a per­son from a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, be­cause you might see stuff on the news and read about stuff, but there’s like, a per­son right there,” said Peter Her­man, a Fayet­teville High School ju­nior.

Her­man worked with class­mates Robert Be­nafield and Grady Cape. They in­ter­viewed a man iden­ti­fied in the state­ment as only Amel. He was born and raised in the Co­moro Is­lands, off the east coast of Africa. Amel is pur­su­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree in pub­lic health at the univer­sity.

The boys’ piece of art is a col­lage on paper, divided in halves. The left half, with a pur­ple back­ground, de­picts some of the neg­a­tiv­ity Mus­lims feel from Amer­ica. A quote from Amel — “I was so scared to show my re­li­gion to Amer­ica” — is at the cen­ter of that half.

The other half, with a white back­ground, was meant to show­case Amel’s jolly per­son­al­ity. It in­cludes a pic­ture of him with a broad smile stand­ing on the univer­sity cam­pus.

The high school stu­dents met their sub­jects dur­ing an event ar­ranged by Cyn­thia Smith, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of out­reach pro­grams in the univer­sity’s depart­ment of In­ter­na­tional Stu­dents and Schol­ars.

This is the third year Grisso has done the project as part of the ARTeacher Fel­low­ship pro­gram. The pro­gram is or­ga­nized by the univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Chil­dren and Youth in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art and the Wal­ton Arts Cen­ter.

It pro­vides area sec­ondary teach­ers with an in­ten­sive course of train­ing and de­vel­op­ment fo­cused on us­ing arts­based strate­gies in English, sci­ence and so­cial stud­ies.

Stu­dents were try­ing to cap­ture their sub­jects’ essence and de­sign some­thing they felt re­flected that per­son. The artists’ state­ments forced them to ex­er­cise some of the aca­demic skills they need in­volv­ing anal­y­sis of a piece of art, Grisso said.

“It’s a very chal­leng­ing thing for a 16-year-old to look at a piece of pot­tery and tell you the his­tor­i­cal con­text and all that stuff,” she said. “But when they make the art piece them­selves, it’s like, light bulbs go off.”

Stu­dents vis­ited a lo­cal mosque and met pro­fes­sors in the univer­sity’s Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies pro­gram.

“We found out Mus­lim peo­ple are liv­ing in our com­mu­nity, hid­ing in plain sight,” Grisso said. “And there are lots of high school stu­dents who are Mus­lim that the kids didn’t even re­al­ize were Mus­lim.”

Fe­briyanti Les­tari, a doc­toral stu­dent from In­done­sia, was an in­ter­vie­wee. She thanked Grisso for giv­ing peo­ple like her a plat­form to share their life ex­pe­ri­ences and to get to know the high school stu­dents.

“This is an amaz­ing idea,” Les­tari said. “I hope she does it ev­ery year.”

Les­tari, who’s been in Amer­ica since 2014, said she’s trav­eled to 27 states, adding she en­joys the op­por­tu­nity to meet new peo­ple.

“Peo­ple are very nice. So far I’ve not had a bad ex­pe­ri­ence,” she said.

High school stu­dents Ha­ley Jack­son, Amanda Thom­sen and Christina Lim — all of whom were raised as Chris­tians — vis­ited the North­west Arkansas Is­lamic Cen­ter and guided a dis­cus­sion with pre­teen chil­dren dur­ing Sun­day school. Their art­work was paper cut and dec­o­rated to re­sem­ble a mosque; they drew small pic­tures within it rep­re­sent­ing what they had ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing their visit.

Thom­sen said it’s fine to learn about an­other re­li­gion from a text­book, but getting to visit an ac­tual mosque is a more pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.

The group’s artist state­ment summed up what they’d learned: “We were able to see through the chil­dren’s eyes how Mus­lim prin­ci­ples are ap­plied in their ev­ery­day life and how they han­dle judg­ments from peo­ple that are not fa­mil­iar with Is­lam.”

Out of about 28,000 stu­dents at the univer­sity, nearly 1,400 are in­ter­na­tional stu­dents rep­re­sent­ing 119 coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to Smith. There’s no data about how many are Mus­lim.

Smith was im­pressed by the ef­fort the high school stu­dents put into their project.

“I re­ally liked it,” she said. “I felt like the stu­dents’ re­flec­tions were great, their art­work was nice. They took the project se­ri­ously.”

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