Three oil paintings that depict scenes from the fairy tale Thumbelina hang in the library-auditorium of the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Northeast Portland.
It's a relic of a New Deal art program that put thousands of artists to work in the 1930s during the Great Depression. These artists created murals, posters and paintings for schools, libraries, hospitals, post offices and courthouses across the country.
The paintings at MLK Jr. School hang on the wall about 20 feet high.
"For whatever reason, they were installed way up there," said artist Harrell Fletcher, a professor at Portland State University. “The kids don't have access to them… [and] they’re really amazing paintings.”
Re-imagining art museums
Portland is home to many amazing artists and works of art, Fletcher said, but they often feel inaccessible, like the Thumbelina paintings hanging in the school.
That's changing for the students at this school. For more than four school years, MLK Jr. School students have been tapping into an abundance of art resources through a partnership with PSU faculty and students and a range of community organizations.
Fletcher and his colleague Lisa Jarrett, who is also an artist and PSU professor, co-founded and co-direct a museum at the school called the King School Museum of Contemporary Art.
“What we're trying to do [with KSMoCA] is make the connections between the resources,” Fletcher said. “We have great resources: the school and the kids and everything that's going on here, and all of the resources of the university and the art world. We can be the conduit of those things.”
As the conduit, KSMoCA invites renowned contemporary artists to lead workshops with students throughout the school year. Together, the artists and students produce artwork and create exhibitions to share with the public.
“Instead of having the MLK Jr. School students travel to a resource like an art museum or gallery, the school becomes a place and a location for these resources,” Jarrett said.
The museum opens to the public several times a year during art exhibition openings and special events, such as public lectures and an annual art fair.
One evening at an exhibition last year, the smell of popcorn and the sounds of a saxophone filled the school's main hallway. Kids took on roles as museum docents, holding clipboards as they led visitors down the hallway to different art displays in cases.
Next to the cases, giant scrolls with drawings of boats, beaches and palm trees stretched across the hallway wall.
“Some of these people are my friends,” said then third grader Ana after she read aloud artist signatures on the drawings. She and her classmates created these scrolls in workshops with local artist Ralph Pugay.
“Does this inspire you at all?” Ana asked a museum goer about another painting with mermaids – one of her favorites by Pugay.
Listen to Ana in her role as a KSMoCA docent
“Looking at kids interacting with adults is pretty striking,” Pugay said during an interview at the exhibition. “I never did that as a child… Usually schools have art programs, but in this case it feels so much more in depth."
“We're offering a different kind of exposure to arts and the art world for kids,” Jarrett said. “They're not just artists, but they're learning to be people that run museums; learning to be publicists, copywriters, docents, curators, right? All these roles that children are usually not taught about in school.”
With support from a grant from Metro’s Community Placemaking program, KSMoCA expanded existing programs and added new ones this past year. More arts organizations in Portland work directly with classrooms during the school year through a special partnership; and more students have access to artist mentors through a one-on-one mentorship program.
In addition, KSMoCA infused the school library with more books about contemporary art. "It's a rich resource that's accessible to teachers, families, mentors and kids," Jarrett said.
The museum directors also created a kids advisory council, an after school program where students help advise how to run the museum.
The museum is physically growing, too. KSMoCA was able to expand into another hallway, creating a new museum wing. A dedicated space, overseen by the kids advisory council, features a rotating art gallery that kids regularly curate.
"We started to install things from our more permanent collection - work that has been generated over the past years," Jarrett said.
One of the pieces in the permanent collection is a stunning series called Our Civil Rights, Revisited. Students studied photographs from the civil rights era and re-created those moments, including the Selma to Montgomery March and the signing of the Oregon Civil Rights Bill.
The photographs are "very powerful," said Yolanda Coleman, former vice principal of MLK Jr. School and a key champion of KSMoCA. Coleman said the photographs and a corresponding video project elevated the students’ work because the KSMoCA programming was strongly connected to what the kids were learning in class.
She said KSMoCA is creating "a new buzz" at the school. The project has become a "hot commodity" among teachers who are eager for their classes' turn to work with KSMoCA.
Within the broader community, Metro’s placemaking grant has helped raise KSMoCA’s profile, attracting private donations and increasing the project’s overall visibility in Portland and across the country.
Investing in kids and place
Coleman is delighted the project is leveraging art resources for MLK Jr. School, an important touchstone for the Black community. Rising housing costs over several years have priced out many Black families with roots in the neighborhood.
"But their families still see value in their kids going to the places that they that they went, or that their grandparents went and they just have a historical connection," she said. "With the school name being Martin Luther King Jr., there is a community pride with that, and they want their children to continue to go here."
Nearly 40 percent of the student body is Black – the third highest percentage in Portland Public elementary schools, behind Boise and Rosa Parks; about 28 percent are Latino and 12 percent multi-race. KSMoCA invites artists from diverse backgrounds and perspectives so that kids have opportunities to work with artists who reflect them.
"I don't know how many of our students would necessarily think to be a visual artist or graphic artist or an artist of any kind as a profession," Coleman said. This experience opens a door for MLK Jr. School students, giving them newfound confidence and an opportunity to practice public speaking, she said.
Earlier this year, KSMoCA collaborated with the Portland Children's Museum on an exhibition curated by the KSMoCA Kids Advisory Council. The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art also hosted KSMoCA for its annual summer art fair while renovations took place at the school.
"The ability to get the work to a different part of Portland, so a much broader segment of the population can see it is so huge and important for the kids," Jarrett said. "It lets people know what's happening here at MLK Jr. School and KSMoCA."
Jarrett and Fletcher are working to spread the word about KSMoCA’s work. At KSMoCA's most recent art exhibition, Abrazos/Hugs with feminist Mexican artist Monica Mayer, two little girls walked around with recording gear, interviewing people for a new podcast KSMoCA is producing.
"What's your favorite hug?" third grader Daynna asked museum goers.
KSMoCA will release the podcast and a documentary film next year, adding to the collection of books they've already published about their work.
All of this body of work benefits students and helps "create positive language about who they are and how they see themselves and hopefully how others will see them in the world as well," Coleman said.
"The exposure that they're having - they wouldn't have otherwise, quite frankly," she said. "They're creating deeper memories and deeper experiences, which I hope will last a lifetime."
Visit the Community Placemaking grant program page for more details.
Visit our Community Placemaking 2017 grantees and 2018 grantees pages.
Metro’s investments, such as these placemaking grants, are strategically focused to help local communities create or sustain the vibrant places envisioned in the Region’s 2040 Growth Concept.
The work of the Community Placemaking grant recipients aligns with Metro's strategic plan to advance racial equity, diversity and inclusion.
Read the strategic plan: