Teacher explores alternative models of art instruction

This story can also be found on Neon Tommy as part of their “Classroom Frontlines” series.

imageAt first glance, 13-year-old Jasmine Taylor resembles the quintessential middle school student.

As she escorts a pair of captivated couples through the Hold Up Art Gallery on East 2nd Street, Taylor confidently discusses canvas choices, color schemes and photography. What distinguishes Taylor and her classmates from their peers is the way they will spend her free time this December – as docents for her class’s self-produced art collection displayed in downtown Los Angeles.

“Photography is my way of expressing myself,” Taylor said. “I like painting and all other types of art, but photography… it’s my life. But, I couldn’t do it without our Room 13.”

Taylor is one of 170 students involved in Room 13, a student managed and financed, multi-media studio at the James A. Foshay Learning Center in South L.A. One of only 83 similarly designed student-driven art studios worldwide, the Room 13 alternative classroom model focuses on original, creative learning and problem solving within a public school context, providing students with the necessary tools to become professional artists.

“Room 13 is the complete opposite of a LAUSD program or any traditional education program,” said John Midby, founder of Foshay’s Room 13 program. “It’s not a franchise, where they bring you the paperwork and you repeat the language and repeat after them. You come up with a system that fits within your school culture, where students and adults can create an art studio and business model.”

Teaching five classes daily to students from sixth grade through high school, Midby launched the first Room 13 program in North America three years ago, encouraging his students to both pursue personal expression through art and explore sustainable business models. When he’s not teaching, Midby is working overtime planning fundraising events, workshops and exhibitions during is conference periods and after school to help fund the self-sustaining studio.

“John [Midby’s Room 13] classroom really gives our students a chance to see how artists make a living and how to run a successful business,” said Foshay’s principal, Yvonne Edwards. “He is so committed, and his sense of commitment and expectations for his students have made them rise to the occasion.”

Founded in Fort Williams, Scotland in the early 90s, the Room 13 project is a facet of Art Studio International, which includes a network of innovative classrooms across Europe, India, South Africa and North America. Foshay’s Room 13 is one of three similar programs currently operating in Los Angeles.

Beginning his career as an independent filmmaker, Midby used substitute teaching to support his cinematic endeavors until becoming a full-time English teacher eight years ago. After helming a study on highly effective teaching methods, Midby was approached with the idea of starting a Room 13 classroom.

“It’s more like being a coach because the students can call the plays also,” Midby said. “I’m letting them know what the possibilities are, what Room 13 is, and then together, we figure out what we are doing day-to-day.”

To help guide students in their artistic discovery, Midby enlists the help of local artists and past Room 13 graduates to both inspire and mentor students. His students engage in virtually every conceivable artistic medium, from painting and stencils, to photography, video and even journalism.

The Room 13 model encourages each classroom to be self-sustaining and to be led by a student management team, responsible for decision-making and the implementation of the business model.

“The goal of the class is to support itself,” Midby said. “We do everything from appearing at farmer’s markets, to doing collaborative workshops and exhibitions. About 10 percent of the time, we have to do things like sell pizza… but for the most part, we’re putting on exhibitions and selling our art.”

imageMidby and his students continue to lead a number of art workshops in South Los Angeles, teaching children and community members how to make recycled art and silkscreen original designs on T-shirts. In the classroom, Midby is part-teacher and part-producer, giving his students the agency halfway through the school year to plan their own class time. Midway through school year, Midby’s five classes are far beyond strict lesson plans.

“One of the main things that I teach them is that the image is an idea, and the image and idea can come in any form,” Midby said. “It could have started off as a painting and it can end up as a sticker or a poster. But the design is forever.”

Although Foshay boasts comparatively high Academic Performance Index (API) score for the South L.A. area at 657, its scores remain under the L.A. Unified School District’s average of 709. The figure summarizes a school’s performance on the 2010 California State Standardized Testing and Reporting Program (STAR) and the 2010 California School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) tests.

As a whole, Midby believes the learning center model has worked for the surrounding community, allowing parents with both limited time and resources to ensure their children have the opportunity to attend a good public school. Operating much like a typical middle school, Foshay’s high school is smaller and more selective than the majority of those in L.A. Unified, giving priority to in-house graduates when applying to the high school.

“The neighborhood is kind of in flux… it’s really a Mecca for them in the neighborhood,” Edwards said. “There are a lot of houses, mostly single-family homes and very few apartments around the school. So you have people who are committed to their families.”

The demographic breakdown of the area surrounding Foshay is now more than 50 percent Latino, according to recent U.S. Census data. Despite renovations to the area and construction projects – such as the Metro Rail construction along Expedition Blvd. – the median value of homes in the area remains more than $150,000 less than that of the rest of California at $217,082.

Despite it’s location, Foshay is considered a more effective than average school, according to the Los Angeles Time’s “value-added” analysis. The analysis is a statistical method that estimates the effectiveness of a L.A. Unified teacher or school by looking at the standardized test scores of students.

Although skeptical of the recently published Los Angeles Times’ study on teachers’ performance in the classroom, he considers the project a necessary step in a tough economic climate.

image“Whether they publish this in the L.A. Times or not, every good teacher hates the fact that the union protects lousy teachers… hates it,” Midby said. “Why should the ones of us who work so hard have to see and work with other people who obviously don’t care?”

Midby said the system has lost a number of talented teachers whilst retaining some who, in his opinion, should have moved on to another profession.

“The problem has always been that [teacher’s] union [UTLA] has gone too far in protecting teachers,” Midby said. “Because of this, the district has had no viable way to separate bad teachers from good ones. When there are a bunch of cuts, it just increases the percentage of teachers who don’t really care about what they are doing.”

But Midby is not one of those teachers. In fact, he is quite the opposite.

Rogelio Santana, an 11th grader in Midby’s high school period of Room 13, considers Midby his most attentive teacher, as Midby constantly thinks about his students and encourages them to vehemently pursue what they are passionate about.

“He gave me the ride [to the exhibition] tonight. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have come,” Santana said. “He’s always trying to make me go to other places to learn more about art.”

A number of class’s pieces will continue to be shown until January 8 at the “Gift of Art” exhibition housed at the Hold Up Art Gallery. Presented in conjunction with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the exhibition will feature art by Room 13 students alongside that of prominent L.A. artists, such as Bill Farroux, Chor Boogie, Ernesto Yerena, Kathia Dungplata, Magda Audifred, Mear One, Pep Williams, Philip Lumbang, Shark Toof, Steven Lopez and Timoi, the class’s artist-in-residence.

“The whole show is about the artists who helped influence these kids and their understanding of what contemporary art is,” said Brian Lee, founder of Hold Up Art Gallery. “Half the gallery’s profits from the show will go to support Room 13.”

For Midby, Foshay’s Room 13 artists represent the Los Angeles of today – young, expressive, multi-racial and creative.

“I just want them to see that you can do things even from the 6th grade that no one else can do and that other people are going to respect,” Midby said. “I tell my students, you can engineer your fate. You can pick what you want to do in your life, and you can accomplish it.”

To become a sponsor or for more information about ROOM 13 LA, please contact John Midby at [email protected] or 213-973-8349.

Intersections partnered with the Foshay Learning Center and Room 13 to host photography workshops. Watch slideshows of the workshops’ final products:
Students experiment with photography at Foshay Learning Center
Snapshots of the Foshay Learning Center
Behind the Lens: Photography at Foshay Learning Center

USC president visits Foshay Learning Center

Listen to the audio story:


Tucked away in the annex of the James A. Foshay Learning Center off Exposition Boulevard in South Los Angeles is a program teaching students not only about creativity and art, but also about finance, public relations and business management. Room 13, as it is called, is a self-sustaining art program that not only teaches students about art, but also how to promote and sell their work.

Foshay teacher John Midby has been with the project since its inception at the school. The students work with him and the school’s artist in residence to create and sell works. The University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias visited Room 13 as part of a tour Monday morning. Midby is pleased with current partnerships with the school, but in the future, he hopes to expand to more schools.

Starting Dec. 10, the students will team up for a gallery show at Hold Up Art with University of Southern California alum Brian Lee. The proceeds of the event will benefit both the gallery and Room 13.

Watts Towers Art Center faces privatization

The Watts Towers art installation is the largest single entity ever built by one man.

Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, started building the towers in 1921. He spent 33 years constructing a giant mosaic structure built of seashells, broken bottles, ceramic pottery and tiles, a rare piece of hand painted Canton ware and numerous pieces of 20th century American ceramics.

The towers have become a symbol of Watts’ community and culture.

The City of Los Angeles placed the Watts Towers Art Center on a list for privatization, due to major budget cut backs, said James Janisse, an employee of the Watts Towers Art Center. The Watts Towers Art Center petitioned the city to remain a public domain.

The art center has been removed from the list of privatization for one fiscal year said Rosie Lee Hooks, the director of the Watts Towers Art Center, in a recent article by Our Weekly.

In this slideshow, Janisse speaks about the purpose of their petition and the importance of the Watts Towers Arts Center to the South Los Angeles community.

BLOG: Finding beauty in the City of Compton

imageIn an effort to bring to the fore the artistic side of the Hub City, Compton artist Amanda Ferrell is organizing a local arts festival. Anyone above 16 years old can apply by emailing Ferrell at [email protected]. The festival will focus predominantly on visual fine art.

Ferrell hopes to eventually establish an arts district in the City of Compton. “I see a lot of spots within our city that would make a great place for a Art Market or Murals for expression,” wrote Ferrell on the Hub City Livin’ forum. “I Just was wondering about the idea of putting Compton on the map by maybe putting together a street festival or such to let the true artists here in Compton shine.”

To help the effort, Compton resident and founder of Hub City Livin’ Maurice Harr has designed a mock-up advertisement for the festival (as shown above.)

View Amanda Ferrell’s art:

Find more videos like this on Hub City Livin’

Compton is rare as a city without any art galleries, and residents have been pulling together to bring cultural landmarks closer to home. Ray Fox, founder of RAY’S Recycler Inc., is spearheading a campaign to establish the Hub Heritage, Culture & Art Gallery in Compton. The idea has been entered for funding as part of the Pepsi Refresh Project, which, if it attains enough votes, will be awarded $50,000 by the Pepsi Cola Company. To vote, visit the Art 4 All page.

El Movimiento captures Chicano history and foreshadows its future

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Oscar Castillo, Past and PresentA man in a cowboy hat sits alone on a bench beside Echo Park lake. The foreground is dark, and the man is shrouded in the shadow of a tree. He seems isolated, lonely. His face is lowered just slightly enough to suggest despair. His jacket and upturned collar are a strange juxtaposition against the sunshine of Los Angeles. Beyond the grassy verge lies infinite light – a world of burdening heat, to seek refuge from in the shade. Or perhaps a bright city, with new opportunities floating on the crest of every sparkling ripple and into the busy streets above.

Oscar Castillo’s photograph, aptly named "Solitude at Echo Park," is a familiar image. The inner-city parks of Los Angeles are still places of refuge and withdrawal for the heavy-hearted, even 30 years after Castillo captured the subtle dynamic through his lens. The man in the cowboy hat still sits by the lake, though his clothes and his name have changed.

Castillo has been documenting Chicano society since he moved to Los Angeles with his family from El Paso, Texas when he was 16 years old. It was tumultuous time. The city’s demographics were shifting rapidly, and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement was erupting in an energetic rush. Castillo witnessed the "High School Blowouts" in 1968, snapping the pictures "Down with Brutality" and "A Free School Not-A-Jail" during a student protest at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights.

A few years later, while studying at California State University, Northridge, Castillo was inspired by the struggle of farm workers in California’s Central Valley and began following the fledgling Farm Workers Union as it started to organize. His photographs of Cesar Chavez reveal personal admiration for the Chicano Civil Rights leader. The shots are reverent; Chavez is surrounded by inspired workers and awed children, or silhouetted against the darkness as he addresses a crowd.

The collection is now being exhibited at the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, housed downtown on Gallery Row at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. At an opening reception, Castillo said that he hoped his work would inspire people to "look at their own community and family, and the beauty around you." Castillo added that strong, positive images of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement are necessary to help purge negative stereotypes persistent in the city, from the past to the present day.

The images are naturally iconic, evocative of the sepia-toned sentiment that accompanies historical art work. But clustered together in the basement room of the Theatre Center building, Castillo’s work risks becoming reminiscent, rather than present. The exhibit is composed of faces and scenery now long familiar, and rests heavily on the symbolism of a revolutionary era, rather than seeking to break new ground. Among the powerful depictions, the simpler images stood out. The subtlely of a mother walking with a young child beside a graffited brick wall, or two young women, one holding a baby, waiting for a bus beside an extravagant mural, seemed more resonant than the rallies, speeches and politics.

And yet, the youthful crowd at the reception proved that these iconic photographs hadn’t lost their poignancy. A group of Latino teenagers mingled around the images of the 1968 Roosevelt High School protest, perhaps recalling some recent experience fighting the LAUSD’s budget cuts. A young woman stood beside Cesar Chavez, reading the history of the United Farm Workers Union on an accompanying placard. Later, an African-American man, dressed in multi-colored, tie-dye pants and a customized leather jacket, leaned in and adjusted his glasses to get a closer look at four similarly-clad Latino men inside one of the frames. "Los Four," taken in 1974, shows artist-friends of Castillo’s smiling happily beside their bright, spray-painted mural, designed to promote graffiti as art, not vandalism.

Castillo himself manned the sidelines with a camera around his neck, the shy and natural observer he claims to have always been. Meanwhile, his shared perspective took on new resonance for the viewers wandering the room. It may have been a different year and a different fight, said Castillo, but the social atmosphere remains the same. "From Vietnam to Iraq," he said, "history repeats itself."


Art in Leimert Park hit by recession

"The recession has taken a toll on everybody in this area. People don’t come here the way they used to. At times I make just $10 the whole week. I might soon have to close this shop down if I can’t make the rent," said owner Kwame Sarpong.

Leimert Park Village, once known as the best place to pick up authentic African objets d’ art, is reeling under recession. A few years back, rising rents forced many local artists to move their studios elsewhere, and now the bad economy promises to change a little more of the character of this art hub. With fewer buyers willing to invest in artworks, memorabilia stores are resorting to discounts and other creative means to lure customers. Similarly, artists in the area are looking to diversify their trade to keep the orders from drying up. 

When Sarpong set up shop here six years ago, people would come in droves to buy clothes, jewelry and home décor items. "Now, they come, they see, they like it but they don’t have the money to buy," he said. Many of his customers have lost their jobs and art is the last thing they want to buy, said Sarpong, who started the sale as a desperate effort to reduce his inventory. "I want to get rid of these things. I was doing this because I loved it. But now there is no hope in this. I don’t think I will get into retail again. People just don’t have the money to spend," he said.

That probably explains why shoppers are scarce, even on a Saturday afternoon. A few steps away from Kumasi, a group of elderly men enjoy a leisurely smoke under a tree. Among them is Bilal, manager at the store, Sika, which sells African sculptures, handcrafted jewelry and clothes. "Sales have fallen by 75 percent over the past year," he said, adding, "If we get 10 buyers a day, we’re almost doing well."

In an effort to stay afloat, Sika introduced a small corner for hair braiding about a year back. It also added Obama memorabilia to its wares, exactly like the neighboring store, Gallery Plus. Laura Hendrix, co-owner of Gallery Plus, said Obama memorabilia did well during election, but that could not help boost sales at the store, which fell by 40 percent in the last two years. These days Hendrix brings in just one or two high-priced items if at all, and offers more discounts. "I sometimes get stuck with the more expensive items and have to reduce prices to sell them," she said. Besides actively emailing her customers about the best deals in her store, she plans to generate interest by having speakers come in and talk about collecting art. "We used to have these talks earlier and then we stopped. But now I would like to start again, to get more people inside the door," she said.

Like art stores in Leimert, artists in the area are innovating to keep the bills from piling up. Aziz Diagne, an artist from West Africa, who once owned a studio in Leimert Park Village and still has many of his paintings displayed at restaurants in the area, said his income has dropped by more than 70 percent. A professional painter for the past 20 years, Diagne occasionally dabbles with carpentry. In the past, he also made a business out of buying used items like computers, shoes, clothes and furniture from garage sales, and selling them for a profit in Africa. "That’s the business I may have to depend on now. I did it for pleasure back then, but now the need is desperate," he said.

Diagne also planned to start a career as an art teacher in Leimert Park, but the steep rents in the area were a deterrent. "Before you make a commitment of paying $2,400 as rent, you need 40 students, but even that is difficult these days," he said. The economy has taken a toll on his art shows too and he finds it difficult to gather money for advance payments for exhibitions. "If artwork was selling, I could make more money than a drug dealer. But now people have other priorities," he said.

Like Diagne, Crenshaw-based painter Kenneth Gatewood has cut down on travelling to art shows outside California. "It’s too big a risk to incur travelling and shipping expenses and not make any money. I don’t do shows at new places these days. Only if I’ve had success at a place before, do I consider going there again," he said. Though he specializes in watercolors, Gatewood has diversified into ceramic painting to generate more sales.

The recession has hit not just artists like Diagne and Gatewood, but musicians as well. Leimert-Park based jazz musician Cornell Fauler, who used to play at restaurants in Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, is now facing a foreclosure on his home. Even the freelance work that occasionally came his way has dried up. Some of his musician friends have taken to teaching music in schools and others are doing business in real estate. But Fauler does not want to give up yet. "I am thinking of starting a band. That will increase my chances of finding work," he said.

Passionate artists like him are keeping the faith even in these tough times. Bilal sums up the mood well. "This (Leimert Park) is the center of black art–painting, music, design, philosophy–it’s a very vibrant neighborhood for the arts, and if it dies, we’ll lose something very valuable. We’d hate to see this go away," he said.