Discovering Patterns of Place
Alice Brinkman and Anita Skeen
Anita Skeen first became involved in "urban things" right after high school, when she was a playground supervisor for four summers at a school in a housing project in Charleston, West Virginia. The concrete playground where Skeen worked was across the river from a chemical plant that blackened her white blouse each day. As Skeen and her colleagues became aware of how few opportunities the kids had access to, they began to provide arts, sports and other experiences for the children. She remembers thinking that in urban areas, kids' lives seemed to be "lived on concrete and they needed something besides that."
Fast forward a few decades and Professor Skeen is still involved in many urban projects. The idea for Patterns of Place came from Alice Brinkman of Reach Studio Art Center, in Lansing, and Laura Delind, an anthropology professor with RCAH. According to Skeen, the project's aim is to provide Lansing School District youth aged 7 to 18 with the opportunity to explore their own neighborhoods in REO Town and see them with "new eyes," making full use of their senses and producing creative works in the form of poetry, photography, printmaking, and painting. As Skeen put it: "I wanted these kids to be proud of where they're from and to notice the things in their neighborhood that nobody notices. Pay attention to what's beautiful that people skim over a lot."
Brinkman, says Skeen, has been "the driving force behind that for a long time and works hard at providing [after-school] programming for these kids." She has brought in numerous people to work with them, including MSU graduate students who mentor the kids. Starting in 2009, Skeen and her MSU colleagues, including Mark Sullivan and Laura Delind, led two-week sessions on poetry, photography, printmaking and painting for youth ages 7 to 18.
Student work is displayed at Reach Studio exhibition, April 2010.
The result of the poetry workshops Skeen conducted with the 7 to 12 year olds was a group of about 11 budding haiku poets. According to Skeen, who was assisted by graduate students Fredy Rodriguez-Mejia (anthropology) and Igor Howatt (music), "We took the kids all around the neighborhood on a 'haiku hike' and spent a lot of time talking about how you perceive the world through your senses… then we took them out with note books for about an hour and a half and walked around the neighborhood." Every so often Skeen would say "Stop and write." After they returned to the Reach center, the kids read out what they had written. The following week Skeen taught them about haiku poetry and had them write their own haiku poems.
Of the experience, Rodriguez-Mejia said, "Working with Professor Skeen has been an invaluable learning experience. Serving as a mentor, a poet, and a teacher, Anita made every poetry workshop we taught a very special experience."
"I wanted these kids to be proud of where they're from and to notice the things in their neighborhood that nobody notices. Pay attention to what's beautiful that people skim over a lot."
The 13 to 17 year olds attended the program for both semesters. Since they had already taken some photographs, Skeen had them write poems about their pictures. First they wrote something about their own photo; then they wrote a response to another person's photo. When their creations were exhibited at the Lookout Gallery at RCAH, along with the younger children's works, each photo was displayed along with the artist's comments and the observer's response to the photo. Skeen commented that the kids "brought their parents and their grandparents. It was just wonderful to see how this could turn a corner in their lives. They might have written a haiku poem and heard people say, 'Ah, look at that. Isn't that wonderful?' The kids replied, "'That's mine. I did that.'"
In April, 2010, Brinkman and Jessica Johnson, an undergraduate student in the RCAH, turned a storefront on Washington Avenue in Lansing into an art gallery displaying the works of the kids and teens from the spring semester. Speaking of MSU's and Skeen's involvement in this project, Brinkman said, "This has been truly a wonderful collaborative project. Anita's experience as a poet, her gentleness, and her passion as a writer have provided a unique opportunity and inspiration for our youth to express themselves through poetry and writing."