Art & Justice for All

In my work at Intuit I am finding just how powerful outsider and self-taught art can be as a force for social change; in particular I have found that can have an especially big impact on teenagers in economically deprived neighborhoods.  About five miles west from downtown Chicago, a high school art teacher has developed an innovative social venture and enterprise effort, called Art & Justice for All. The project is an alternative educational strategy for students on Chicago’s west side focusing on breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and juvenile social problems.

Jeanne S. Walker, art teacher and Team Leader/Service Learning Coach at Orr Academy High School, is the mastermind who engineers this project. Through Intuit’s Teacher Fellowship Program I came to learn about this project as I worked with Jeanne to develop her curriculum further using outsider art for her already-existing Art & Justice for All program. I was drawn by her idea to use outsider art as catalyst – not only to integrate it with other academic subject learning, but also to develop an enterprise for teens to validate their creativity, and foster essential life skills.

Art & Justice for All is designed to help Orr’s students obtain entrepreneurial skills and promote peace and justice through the production and sale of fashion design, jewelry, and art. The sales of their artwork is a 50/50 split between the students and student-led initiatives, such as peer mediation, conflict resolution, anger management, or job training programs, which are often ignored in traditional school settings. Some of the pieces are sold in local stores, including Intuit.  

Prior to her tenure at Orr, Jeanne was the “Issue to Action” teacher at Mikva Challenge. The experience laid the early groundwork for Jeanne in conceptualizing the project. Later, Jeanne joined Orr’s faculty. Over the last six years at the beginning of each new school year, Jeanne  has brainstormed with her students about issues they face in their schools, homes, and communities at the beginning of each school year; violence, gangs, lack of jobs, drugs, fighting, youth murder, and teen pregnancy are constant mentions. As Jeanne points out, these problems are intertwined closely to the teenagers’ need of money for basic needs, such as food, transportation, clothing, and shelter. These needs urged her to develop a hybrid program, combining various models of After School Matters, and social ventures in which a portion of funds earned re-direct back to address the students’ need.   

It seems to me that the philosophy and framework of Art & Justice for All reflects the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  In the hierarchy, the lowest levels of hierarchy are made up of the most basic and physical requirements, including the need for food, water, sleep and warmth. It supports the next tier of need, which is for safety and security.  

As the pyramid of the hierarchy progresses upward, people’s needs become increasingly social – this is comprised of the need for love, friendship and intimacy. Once this is met, the need for personal esteem and feelings of accomplishment take a strong position. The top of the hierarchy is self-actualization, referring to a process of growth and fulfillment of the person’s potentials. 

Art & Justice for All is built on the in the fundamental value of building teens’ self-sufficiency by meeting all five needs, as framed in Maslow’s Hierarchy: creating unique opportunities for the teenagers to make “legitimate” money, finding safe haven in the process of art-making, re-establishing self-image by discovering the artistic potential, and finally, allowing them to find pride and self-affirmation in their creative work as exposed to the public.  In sharing how she finds her inspiration for this project, Jeanne S. Walker refers to a self-taught visionary artist and builder, Howard Finster:  

“First of all, Finster channeled his passion, his visions for a better world, and what he really cared about, into his artistic expressions.  I loved how he took words and images and transformed them into art, into a message that exhorted his audience to a higher purpose. This was exactly the type of message I wanted my students to adapt to their artwork. Surrounded as they are with so many challenges, it seemed that positive and inspirational messages were a perfect choice,” Jeanne describes. 

Howard Finster was born to a family of thirteen children in Alabama.  He received his first vision when he was three years old to be “a man of visions.”  As a preacher, he created an astonishing volume of work that carried spiritual messages.  His work ranges from painting, sculptures, and built environments.  One of his most known creations would be Paradise Gardens Park and Museum in Georgia, using found and recycled objects, such as bikes, glass bottles, mirror, broken tile, concrete, wood and other tools.  His intuitive juxtaposition of materials did not come easily as it required thoughtfulness, perseverance and methods developed over time.  Jeanne praises the artist as “an entrepreneur of a very high caliber.”  In his retirement from preaching in 1970’s, he continued to produce an incredible amount of artwork.  Initially setting out to create 5,000 pieces as a personal goal to spread the gospel, he eventually outnumbered it by eight times more – over 40,000 pieces were made, thanks to the involvement of his family. Howard Finster’s resilient soul mobilized Jeanne to launch Art & Justice for All.

Why did they choose not to use the more common, accepted art forms or the contemporary art from the mainstream for Art & Justice for All? Jeanne says that accessibility is a core value embedded in the project. “By accessible,” she explains, “I mean that outsider artists are often people just like my students, coming from challenging and difficult circumstances, are not formally trained in art, who use available materials that could be scavenged or salvaged at hand, and then transform it to a greater purpose.”

Outsider artists, like Howard Finster, have remarkable creative intuition despite of socio-economic status or educational background.  Or, like another self-taught artist, Bill Traylor, who was a former slave, drew thousands of pieces of simplistic silhouettes of figures on grocery bags, cardboards, and loose paper with graphite or colored pencils that he could find on the street.

Now, as I am sitting here and looking at the pictures of Jeanne’s work with the students at Orr Academy High School again, I am convinced that art does not exist in ivory tower, or some kind of metaphysical or mystical space.  I applaud Art & Justice for All because it shows that art can fulfill the basic and psychological needs of their students. With this, social justice is within reach.   

Photo Credits:

Reverend Howard Finster
Garding Angel #1,734
Mixed media on wood
17” x 34 1/4”
Promised gift of Susann Craig
(Intuit’s Permanent Collection)
Photo Credit: Intuit

Orr Academy High School
Art & Justice for All
Photo Credits: Carol Ng-He (for Intuit Teacher Fellowship Program 2010-2011)

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