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On View: Art Exhibit Showcases More Than Student Talent

Therese Workman

Therese Workman is Senior Manager of Digital Content Strategies at ExpandED Schools.

Every artist gets his or her start somewhere, and for the student artists of PS 188, their careers may have begun on a walk around their neighborhood.

Ms. Barbara Solony has been an after-school arts educator in the Lower East Side for 22 years. Raised in the LES herself, she’s derived inspiration for her art lessons by taking walks around the neighborhood with other like-minded, adventure-seeking community members. One day, she decided to organize sketching walks for her students, exploring the neighborhood’s urban beauty and teaching the kids to observe and interpret what they see in their own special ways.

It was during one of these excursions that the owner of the Wilmer Jennings Gallery, himself on a sidewalk stroll, took notice of Ms. Barbara’s crew of young artists drawing. After approaching Ms. Barbara and learning about her students, plans were made to bring one of Ms. Barbara’s dreams to fruition: a student art show in a New York City gallery.

The late-October show “Through the Eyes of a Child” was curated by Ms. Barbara from her personal archive of student work over many years (most of which she’s stored in her own apartment!) and showcased marionettes, quilted murals, paper water towers, intricate cityscapes, pop-up “passport” books and more created by the kids of PS 188. But Ms. Barbara wasn’t the only one who had taken such care of artwork over the years—some of the students had preserved their cherished creations of years past.

[Ms. Barbara's art] classes have helped me see things creatively. Like now, when I look at a book, I see images flying out of the book’s pages. I define myself as an artist." -Luis, 7th grader.

“We kept our dolls we made in 3rd grade because they bring back good memories of Ms. Barbara’s class,” said 7th grader Modibo, who was visiting the gallery with his class on one of the final days of the exhibition.

“My Native American doll is like a totem,” explained 7th grader Sa’id. “I made my doll like me—at the time, I’d hurt my leg, so I left the doll without a leg. I loved making the dolls with Ms. Barbara because she told us to make the dolls with our own signature touch.” He added, “One of the reasons I loved making the dolls was because I’m Native American.”

While weaving in and out of excited students pausing and pointing around the room, I met 12-year-old Luis, another one of Ms. Barbara’s protégés.

“I used to think that art was just drawing. Ms. Barbara introduced me to other things like puppet-making and Claymation. Art can be so many different things. I think these classes have helped me see things creatively. Like now, when I look at a book, I see images flying out of the book’s pages. Art helps bring other things to life because you become more creative.”

Ms. Barbara develops her classes to incorporate subjects like history, literacy/writing and even cooking. The Passport pop-up book project gave many immigrant students a fun and engaging way to share their families’ cultures and countries of origin with their classmates. Brittany Spatz of Educational Alliance (the partnering community organization that helps PS 188 expand the school day) described how Ms. Barbara’s exhibition is a literal showcase of expanded learning at its best. “She is a para-professional educator in the 3-5th grade resource room with special needs kids during the main school day, and then seamlessly transitions to art educator in expanded day. With the special needs kids, she is able to use art to help them self-regulate, focus and express themselves—social-emotional learning [SEL] in action. PS 188 will be using a tiered SEL approach, and will include this kind of art therapy with Yale’s RULER framework.

Seventh graders Modibo (left) and Sa'id (right) cherish the Native American dolls that they made in Ms. Barbara's (center) class years ago.

This is a perfect example of the wrap-around value of expanded learning: you can see how this approach is holistic and carries all the way through the expanded school day. This enrichment isn’t happening in bursts—it’s embedded in the learning.”

As I continued to snap pictures around the gallery, I overheard one particularly enthusiastic student cheering and bouncing from sculpture to drawing. I asked her why she was so excited. “It’s so surprising,” said 7th grader Melody. “Everything looks so realistic and colorful! It’s mind-blowing!”

While the show undoubtedly showcased student talent, it also showed the magic that can happen when a community educator, cultural organization and school come together to hold each other up and celebrate their value. When asked how she started out those 22 years ago, Ms. Barbara humbly smiled and shrugged. “I just got into it.”


Click here or see below to take a virtual gallery tour!

"Through the Eyes of a Child" PS 188 Art Show

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