Jazz Music Provides Visual Inspiration for the New Dyett High School

School is back in session in Chicago, and as of yesterday, the city’s educational landscape includes a revitalized arts hub in Washington Park that aims to strengthen its community through creativity: The reopened Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts.

After the school was phased out and closed its doors in June 2015, Dyett High School’s community coalesced to put on the heat. After months of protests, Chicago Public Schools accepted a plan recommended by the Bronzeville Community Action Council to reopen the school with enhanced arts programming and technology resources.

Dyett High School’s newly established concentration on the arts and creative development forged the perfect partnership with Urban Gateways for a summer 2016 project with teaching artist Nicole Beck, welcoming incoming freshmen to join Nicole in an installation project to celebrate the school’s new identity and its connections to jazz music. Their brightly-colored, horn and brass instrument-inspired installation art is being installed in the school’s entryway in the coming weeks.

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Photographer Alayna Kudalis observed the installation art-making process on August 9.

Nicole’s inspiration was Dyett himself. “I was doing research on Dyett and I was just blown away by all the musicians he taught and his impact on CPS,” Nicole said. Walter Dyett (1901-1969) was a violinist and Chicago Public Schools music educator who taught musicians from Nat King Cole to Bo Diddley; his influence on blues and jazz was enormous.

For four weeks in July and August, Nicole and her students met at nearby Shoesmith Elementary in Kenwood on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays from 10am to 2pm to conceptualize and construct their complex art pieces. Students worked in pairs or groups to choose an instrument, sketch a design, and scale it up using math skills. Using components including plumbing and electrical items and steel wire, students learned how to bend the materials and manipulate them, then drill them into place in the shape of their chosen instrument. After covering the sculptures in paper mache, students chose patterns from a range of inspirations presented by Nicole: Tape designs by colleague and Urban Gateways teaching artist James Jankowiak, works by artist Yayoi Kusama, African Kente cloth, Gee’s Bend Quilts, and much more.


Students painted their selected patterns onto the sculptures using gesso white base paint and high-grade acrylics. All pieces were mounted on wooden backgrounds covered in sheet music.

“The process has been hard and fun at the same time, because the wires, trying to bend them and put them into shape, and the paper mache, and then putting the white paint on there…it was a really fun process, and I’m happy how it came out,” said artist and incoming Dyett freshman Camryn. “How I got started with this project was my mom was looking on her Facebook and her email, and somebody sent her something about the project and how they want the kids to make something for the school because it’s going to be welcoming for them. My mom asked me if I wanted to do it and of course I said yes, because I love art.”


The pieces are being installed at Dyett High School in the coming weeks (stay tuned for photos), giving the young artists who participated in this project the opportunity to see their creations on a daily basis and to glean new inspiration from them.

“I can’t wait to start freshman year at school,” Camryn said. She is excited about the school’s art offerings and intends to keep developing her own creative mindset. “I love painting, that’s one of my favorite things to do, it really calms me down. And for next year, I love acting and singing, so hopefully they’ll have a drama class…Acting is a way for me to be a different person but still be myself at the same time.”

The sculptures created by Camryn and her new classmates serve to highlight Bronzeville’s artistic history, a theme that will be tied in throughout Dyett High School’s curriculum.

“The connection between the community, the history, and the art – it’s a big emphasis for us,” said new Dyett Principal Beulah McLoyd. “When people take pride in where they live, it fuels community.”

Final art

Dyett students with their completed installation art in August 2016. Photos by Nicole Beck. Artwork titles from upper left (clockwise): “L’eau et le Flame”; “80’s Beats”; “Satchmo”; “Zig Zag Jamz”

See more photos of this program
on Flickr!

Thanks to these generous Urban Gateways funders for supporting programs like this one!