Eagle Rock High School (ERHS) seniors Kestrel Valdez, Johanna Pearson and Denise Meier did not shy away from confronting their audience with visually stimulating pieces titled “Grotesque,” “Obligatory Discomfort” and “Bold” during an exhibition at Occidental College March 19. Located in Lower Herrick, students of ERHS art teacher Pablo Oliveros were assigned the task of creating their own art show complete with music, lighting, food and most importantly, pieces of artwork from their two-year long International Baccalaureate (IB) program.
The partnership between ERHS’ art program and Occidental began three years ago and is overseen by Oxy Arts Coordinator of Community Programs Allegra Padilla.
“When I first arrived here at Occidental two-some years ago, some local high school students reached out because they were seeking space for their art exhibits,” Padilla said. “Oxy Arts sees this event as our ongoing community engagement and part of our desire to support local young artists.”
Valdez explained the project they were assigned and what she gained from the experience.
“The culminating project of our two-year-long arts course in the IB diploma program is to host an art exhibition on our own. We have to source our own free venue and put together a collection of eight to eleven pieces with a common theme,” Valdez said. “We learn a lot through this project because making art throughout the years is different than making a whole collection where the pieces have to be connecting and you have to write about them. It’s a very fun experience.”
Similarly, Pearson found the process of putting on an art show to be a taste of what it would be like to be an artist in the real world.
“We learned about art, obviously, but I think we also secretly learned about time management, how to set things up and really being independent,” Pearson said. “I’m really proud of the fact that I was able to put on my own show and proud of all of us for that. This showed me that doing art beyond high school is definitely a possibility.”
Not only did the students set up the venue, they had the task of showcasing their work and explaining its significance. Meier said she drew inspiration from professional artists such as Paul Klee, an artist known for his individual style influenced by cubism, surrealism and other abstract movements.
“We learned what it’s like to be a professional artist and what that entails,” Meier said. “My series is called “Grotesque” and it focuses on human emotions and the fears that affect them.”
Valdez also drew inspiration for her series entitled “Obligatory Discomfort” from Henri Matisse, who typically used pure, bright colors to grab his audience’s attention. Her subject matter followed this style of painting as it addressed subjects not routinely discussed but still important due to their influence on youth, such as puberty and the difficulties of adolescence.
“My theme is ‘Obligatory Discomfort,’” Valdez said. “It’s about the growing pains of adolescence and how to navigate them.”
Beyond drawing inspiration from previous artists, Pearson drew the inspiration for her show from the community she grew up within Eagle Rock.
“My theme is ‘Bold,’ and it’s about being fearless and taking action in spite of fear. It addresses what it means to be bold in both a visual sense and an actual sense,” Pearson said. “Growing up in Eagle Rock, which is such a colorful neighborhood, really impacted my work and the theme I chose for my show.”
Oliveros said he stands behind the project he assigns his students and feels it allows them to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real life.
“Most traditional schools will teach in theory and never go out into the real world,” Oliveros said. “This task is supposed to challenge them, not only to source a venue and communicate with a professional in a real-world setting, but also get them outside of the classroom and apply their skills.”
Beyond just improving and utilizing real-world skills, Oliveros emphasized the fact that his students are experiencing life in the real world through artistic means.
“Even if my students leave my class and never take another art class again, they definitely have an appreciation for the rigor of it all and for how much effort is involved in creating art that is both universal and personal,” Oliveros said. “That is one of the hallmarks of this show. The students have to be able to attract the viewers and make them connect and feel something. They are creating these bonds and links through the skills they’ve acquired in art-making.”
The collaborative nature of this show between the local high school community and Occidental is something both Oliveros and Padilla stressed the importance of. Connections to the community are hard to come by and maintain but offer a lot in return, according to Padilla.
“Community projects like this are really important for Occidental to put a lot of resources into because it becomes a learning opportunity for all types of people that are involved — not only off-campus community but also on-campus community,” Padilla said. “Institutions of higher education have a lot of resources that can benefit off-campus communities, and so I think it is the role of higher education to think very intentionally and strategically about how those resources get shared out.”
Oliveros echoed these sentiments and emphasized the importance of the link between Occidental and ERHS.
“I think that it’s important to note the link between the community is growing and growing. When we started this endeavor in 2016, we didn’t think Occidental would want to host a high school event for us,” Oliveros said. “Then in 2016, an Eagle Rock High School student approached Oxy and it’s been a great connection ever since. Occidental is now our partner, they host us, and it’s a great example of what you can do with a community that’s united.”
The connection Oxy Arts has fostered with the ERHS arts program is just one example of the community outreach the office wishes to achieve, according to Padilla.
“As we look at the opening of Oxy Arts on York which is happening later this spring, we are in the process of building new relationships and collaborations that we hope to expand upon once we do have the off-campus space,” Padilla said. “I think people being able to have a space to be creative, experiment and dream and even build together is really important and will shift the landscape of society if things like this were offered in every community.”
Creating community spaces in which creativity and collaboration are a priority is something Padilla hopes will fundamentally change the way the Occidental community interacts with the broader Los Angeles community and hopefully have a lasting, positive impact.
“I feel that people that come together to create and build a vision will be stronger advocates in other parts of their lives,” Padilla said. “The creative process offers a lot in terms of team building, collaboration, consistency and communication, which are skills that are invaluable in career and life development.”
For Padilla and Oliveros, the ERHS art project is just one example of the positive impact of collaboration between the local community and Occidental. It offers a space in which students like Valdez, Pearson and Meier can share their artistic achievements with the community at large, an opportunity few high schoolers get the chance to experience.