CHAPEL HILL - Half a dozen students sat in teacher Michael Irwin’s classroom after the end of a Chapel Hill High school day last week while resident artists Pierce Freelon and Will McInerney helped them fine-tune the details of the big multimedia performance and art project they’d been working on for more than two months.
“How is everybody’s project coming?” Freelon asked.
He got a couple of thumbs-up signs.
“It’ll all come together at crunch time,” said Mara Kelm-O’Conner. “Crunch time, that’s magic.”
Freelon did a quick mental calculation.
“It’s 12 days from now,” he said.
“Whoa,” she said. “So I guess it’s crunch time now.”
The 16 student-artists who make up the Painted Voices collective will present “Home Project” from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 1, at the Street Scene Teen Center downtown.
The event is an evening of poetry, performance, painting and photography inspired by the personal stories the students heard from local residents, especially members of underrepresented populations such as the homeless, residents of the Northside neighborhood or Karen refugees from Burma.
The students chose the subject populations they wanted to focus on, and Freelon and McInerney helped them arrange to interview members of those groups.
“The idea is to try to take all the different mediums that students do artwork in, and based on those present some interpretations of what home means,” said sophomore Emma Beveren. “Home means different things to people, and we tried to find those various ideas.
“The Karen refugees are a great example, because their home here is completely different than the one they left behind, but if they’re with their families they have a sense of home.”
Freelon, a musician and educator, and McInerney, co-director of the Sacrificial Poets, are doing a 10-week residency with Painted Voices.
The Home Project is based in part on Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, a Sacrificial Poets project that grew out of trips McInerney and two other poets made to Egypt and Tunisia to document the stories of ordinary people amid the popular uprisings there last year.
“It’s about using art as a means of agency, as a means not only of relaying information but of engaging and connecting with the community,” McInerney said. “I think a lot of the students got involved because they thought the project sounded like a cool idea. But what they’re learning is that it’s not just a cool idea, it’s an important idea, a powerful idea.
“It’s not just, ‘Hey, we’re interested in your story and we want to turn it into a piece of art.’ It’s about building fellowship, learning from the people you interact with, and using art to foster a sense of community and connection.”
Other poets and artists have been helping out, as well, as has Irwin, who teaches English.
The project is supported by the Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission and the town’s Public and Cultural Arts Office.
So there’s a lot of adult support and guidance. But the students are the ones driving the bus, McInerney said.
“We’re here to give advice and to share some ideas about things that have worked for us, but it’s their show,” he said.
“It’s a process based on youth leadership, so the whole idea is for them to take the initiative and lead the way.”
Which is how the meeting last week went. Freelon and McInerney led the discussion, but mostly by asking questions, and decisions were made by consensus. Everyone threw suggestions into the mix.
“Does anybody have a harp?” asked Shaunak Turaga, who was coordinating the music for the reception.
“You mean an actual harp?” Freelon said. “Shaunak, who has a harp? I’m just saying, really, who has a harp?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” Turaga said.
At the reception, students will perform their poetry and other spoken-word pieces, show and discuss their artwork, and share the stories of the people they interviewed.
Madison Gunning and Tristin Van Ord gave the group a preview of their poetic work in progress.
“Madison and I are doing a group poem about our interpretations of home,” Van Ord said afterward. “Home is something we can all relate to, but doing our interviews and working on this project has opened my eyes to how many different things home can be other than my perception of it.”
Opening eyes, making connections, learning from other people – precisely what Freelon and McInerney hoped the young artists would get out of the experience.
The next step is helping those lessons not only stick but grow.
“We’re fusing different art forms to push boundaries,” McInerney said. “It’s about much more than just creating a piece of art. Now we have to figure out how to make it last. Because this isn’t a project. It’s an idea.”