The Zen of Relief Printing

The welcoming atmosphere of Southside Occupational Academy struck me the moment I walked in with photographer Alayna Kudalis the morning of May 24. It’s impossible to overlook: Within five minutes we’d been asked by at least a dozen smiling faces whether we’d been helped. When teaching artist Jesse Avina met up with us, he may have been weighted down by art supplies, but he also looked more awake and eager than pretty much any downtown commuter I’ve ever seen at the start of their workday. On the way to the art room, we passed the incredible mosaic mural that Jesse and his students completed last year. Its message of inclusiveness and community enjoyed prominence in Urban Gateways’ last program catalog; I’ve seen the picture many times. But seeing the mural in person really drove the point home: At Southside, welcoming everyone who walks through the school’s door is not just a pleasant gesture. It is serious, thoughtful, and meaningful work – work that the staff and students undertake every day.

Southside caters to students with special needs age 16 to 22, many of whom have aged out of CPS high schools. The school also provides an aide for every two students, so students enjoy plenty of support to ensure they can participate in each activity in a way that makes sense for their unique skill sets. While much of a student’s day is focused on vocational training, classes like art remain key components of a Southside education – and I would deign to guess that no corner of this school is more colorful than Ms. Radomski’s art room. From supply-lined countertops to previous printmaking projects drying across the room and a large color wheel mosaic on the wall (also a student project led by Jesse), students are surrounded by reminders of creativity.

Jesse’s Wednesday session began with about 10 students at 9:30am, the beginning of the school day. First up, student-led attendance; the young man who completed the roll call made a point of making eye contact with each of his peers, smiling, saying their names, and asking how their day was going. Then, a calming activity; Ms. Radomski played a short meditation video featuring the sounds of waves and bells along with a voice encouraging students to close their eyes and slow their breath. Ms. Radomski told me that the morning routine has been recently introduced and is working wonders for her students’ concentration.

And then the art making commenced. Jesse began by reviewing analogous and complementary colors with the use of a slideshow and the color wheel mosaic, a great visual cue as the students attuned themselves to the task at hand. The project of the day was relief printmaking on bandanas; students selected squares of fabric and used stamping sponges and paint to create a uniform pattern all over their bandana. Jesse then handed out etching foam blocks featuring each student’s initials, and students gouged around their initials to create a personalized printmaking tool. In another session they’ll finish their bandanas off with another paint pattern containing their initials.

What really got me about this class was the focus I observed as each student covered his or her printing sponge in paint, smoothed out the bandana, and lined up the print. From the opening meditation all the way to gouging their initials, the students were in a kind of happy trance – and just observing them at work, so was I.

During a previous class with Jesse, these students had created Jacobs Ladders using pieces of wood nailed and strung together, featuring prints they had created earlier in the residency. One young man, James, was still finishing his up, so Jesse showed him how to nail everything together and James set to work with a serious expression. Ms. Radomski commented that she wasn’t sure James had much experience with a hammer and nails, but Jesse’s patience in showing him how to go about the task was enough for him to undertake the project with confidence. When he finished, lifted up his ladder, and realized he had put everything together correctly to create the cascading effect, the grin didn’t leave his face for about half an hour as he made his way back and forth across the room showing it off.

”Jesse really has a way of pulling out different talents for each of them,” Ms. Radomski said. “We wish we could keep him forever.” It’s Jesse’s third year at Southside, and the continuous partnership has allowed him to build rapport and relationships with these students and their individual abilities.

I was touched by this school, this residency, and the clear creative bond that Jesse, Ms. Radomski (as well as other staff and aides), and the young artists have established over the course of several years and countless projects. Having worked at Urban Gateways for 5.5 years, I’ve had the chance to observe the impact of this work across a wide array of programs, from energetic dance performances to contemplative photography and painting residencies. I always see focus, dedication, and faces brightening when art making ensues. I think those are universal reactions to the power of the arts. I have to say, though, that with students this uninhibited the effect was magnified – and special.


Check out more photos of this residency by Alayna Kudalis, or read last year’s blog about arts programming at Southside.


Thank you to funders who support this program, including:

The Creative Schools Fund