Holding Chicago High: Mosaic-Making at Southside Occupational Academy

“We learn in different ways; we understand we are important; we excel in school, work, and the community; we believe in ourselves.”

This is the statement that students at Chicago’s Southside Occupational Academy High School recite daily after the Pledge of Allegiance. It is also one of the sources of inspiration that teaching artist Jesse Avina drew from for his proposed mural project, in which 11th and 12th grade students would have to color sketches, learn to smash mosaic tiles, and arrange them in an intricate design that would cover 20 feet by 8 feet of one of the school’s hallways – no small undertaking. However, the students proved more than up for the challenge.

Southside Occupational Academy caters to students 16 to 22 years old with disabilities. A self-described “transition center”, it acts as an intermediary between more traditional high schools and the workforce, aiming to help students further explore their strengths while preparing them for the outside world.

Jesse returned to the school for his second residency in winter of 2016, as he loved his initial experience at Southside Occupational during the 2015-16 school year so much that he couldn’t stay away – and he and his students had a mural to finish.

Over the course of Jesse’s residencies, the students worked on various projects and experimented with multiple forms of visual art, including painting and collage. Jesse consulted Southside Occupational’s principal, Joshua Long, frequently during his residencies, and together they devised projects that they believed both taught important educational lessons, and best complemented the students’ unique abilities.


Jesse teaches a student the drip paint technique

“The reason I was able to do all the projects that I wanted was that the principal, the faculty, the staff, and even the secretaries were all so on board and supportive,” Jesse said.

As an example of just how supportive the staff members of Southside Occupational were, Avina detailed how in order to complete the vision of one of his projects when the allotted budget didn’t quite cover it, principal Long went out and purchased the remaining necessary supplies.

“They gave me the freedom to operate and I never felt uncomfortable there,” Jesse said. “I was able to do so much with the kids. I was never made to feel like I was there to be a babysitter.”


Finished pieces using tape and paint to create artistic designs

During one project in which students learned about the color wheel and contemporary and analogous colors, where they would lay down tape in different designs, paint over the tape, and peel it away, Jesse drew inspiration from abstract painter Ad Reinhardt. In another project, Jesse referred to the works of Jackson Pollock to teach students the technique of “drip” or “action” painting. He favored using the styles of abstract artists over more traditional work, which he believed focused too much on judgments of proximity to reality. Abstract styles, Jesse felt, allowed the students to explore their creativity more freely.


A stunning work based on Jackson Pollock’s drip paint technique

Southside Occupational art teacher Katie Radomski raved about her experience with Jesse and his residency.

“Our experience with Jesse has been nothing short of amazing. Jesse took the time to learn about each student and their unique learning styles. He made many accommodations that allowed every student to participate in the projects,” she said.

Jesse introduced his most ambitious project towards the end of his first residency – a mosaic mural for one of the school’s hallways, in which the students would be a part of every step of the process. Jesse was elated to return for a second residency to help the students complete the undertaking.

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Students participated in every stage of the process, including placing tiles

The mosaic design’s more apparent influence is the aesthetic of 80’s street culture artist and activist Keith Haring. Jesse appreciated the celebration of diversity and unity in Haring’s work, and felt it fit well with Southside Occupational’s mission statement. The mosaic’s less explicit inspiration is the Greek myth of the Titan god Atlas, who was condemned to eternity to hold up the sky. In the mosaic, however, in which students of various colors, including a student in a wheelchair, appear to be either dancing in front of or holding up the skyline together, the message is much more optimistic: each of Chicago’s children is irreplaceable and has incredible potential to make a positive impact. The completed mosaic now proudly spans a wall of Southside Occupational’s front hallway as a lasting reminder of its students’ capabilities and determination.


The completed mural in one of Southside Occupational’s hallways

“The students learned so much about various elements of art but also so much about themselves,” Radomski said. “Jesse’s positive energy and passion for art shined not only in the classroom but now on the walls of our school that display the students’ masterpiece.”

As for the future of the movement to spread arts education in schools, Jesse knows that it’s about a lot more than funding. “In a perfect, utopian, public school world, physics and science and all these other subjects would be integrated with art. The key, and the toughest part of it all, is demonstrating to non-artists the value of art.”

Jesse said that for artists and art advocates, “It’s cyclical. We had it, so we believe in it.”

As arts education is already so often cut from school curriculums, at a school that specifically strives to prepare and transition its students into the workforce, one might expect a very small arts presence, if any at all. The staff at Southside Occupational fully embraced arts education, however, making room for Jesse’s programming two years in a row. The incredible amount of hard work and dedication that the students displayed, and the lessons they learned and incorporated into their work around unity, diversity, and empowerment, should make everyone a believer.

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See more of the students in action on Flickr:
Year 1 and Year 2!


Programs like this one are made possible by generous Urban Gateways funders, including:

The Crown Family

The Libra Foundation

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