Hidden connections: Unique student collaboration reveals powerful perspective

The Art in Between project’s version of “Guernica” is on exhibit in the art gallery at Charlottesville High School through January. Photo: Aaron Eichorst The Art in Between project’s version of “Guernica” is on exhibit in the art gallery at Charlottesville High School through January. Photo: Aaron Eichorst

few years ago, Nia Kitchin went to an art exhibit at Charlottesville High School. She couldn’t help but notice the quality of work by a few non-CHS students, artists who were under the tutelage of her soccer coach, Marcelle VanYahres.

“The work that I saw for the first time, I think, was a really large graphite portrait. The technical skill was amazing, but there was so much emotion behind it,” says Kitchin, now a high school senior.

Those young artists are students at Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center, a facility that provides a residence and a structured program for juveniles ages 10 through 17. Though Charlottesville City Schools runs the BRJDC educational programs, the students come from across Central Virginia.

According to VanYahres, each student enrolled at BRJDC participates in art class. Unlike academic classes, which may be challenging for various reasons, “creating art is hands-on, sometimes mindless and often therapeutic,” she says. “These children teach me so much more about life than I can ever teach them about art. My classroom works through this give-and-take, and it’s a safe place for students to create art, talk and process.”

After observing the work, Kitchin hatched a plan for a massive joint art project, Art in Between, something that would give more exposure to the kids at BRJDC and give CHS students the chance to learn from them.

“I wanted to combine the CHS students’ work with the Blue Ridge students’ work and represent the community of us, even though we can’t actually be together,” says Kitchin. “I wanted to create this dialogue even though we can’t actually talk.”

She approached VanYahres with her concept to recreate “Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso, using individual pieces of the painting by students from both schools.

“This is an exciting first for us,” says Jennifer Mildonian, art teacher at CHS. “Nia is a dynamic and involved artist. Coming from a family of artists, she knows how important art can be as a connector to the community.”

Kitchin says she chose “Guernica” for its size and components as well as the emotion of the piece. “It’s very, very powerful, and you can see how all the different people and animals are reacting to the bombing [of Picasso’s village]. I wanted to see an interpretation of it, of students reacting to different things.”

When divided into a large grid composed of small squares, Picasso’s famous work became a series of indiscernible grayscale prints. Kitchin copied the lines of each piece onto canvases using graphite, at which point they were split among participating students at both schools.

Participants followed loose rules, namely “use paint” and “stay in the lines,” and were free to add patterns or abstract objects to their art.

Collaborative work isn’t new to the students at the center, who have worked together on murals in its hallways. They also recreated Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” using a grid system, similar to the “Guernica” concept.

“The students didn’t know what they were going to make as a whole,” VanYahres says. “I only told them they were going to recreate a famous piece of art. I think the students had a great time with this project.”

The experience offers community-building combined with a sense of ownership. “It really makes the students at Blue Ridge feel like a part of something larger,” Mildonian says. “For students to be able to work across schools and interact through a visual medium was exciting.”

Kitchin says the final work as a whole blew her away. “It was so colorful and expressed completely different emotions than the original piece,” she says.

Rather than a single artist’s concentrated response to a singular event, Art in Between showcases the collective intelligence and emotional range of teenagers across all walks of life.

“It’s like we’re in between being children and adults, in between these ‘in’ stages of life,” Kitchin says. “I think it’s the feelings of not being quite free—not quite adults yet. How we feel frustrated sometimes. You know, really reveling in this growing-up period.” 

For Kitchin, the project is a continuation of a lifelong interest in art. Since eighth grade, when she attended Reflections Governor’s Art School, she’s created oil paintings and graphite and pencil work. Most recently she knitted “human tubes” that can act like full-sized “emotional cloaks,” she says. “I like thinking about how different humans react to the same things and capturing deep emotion.”

In college, she plans to major in political science and potentially minor in art. “I want to be able to combine those two aspects, the way I feel I’ve sort of done with this mural,” she says.

For Kitchin, and likely her peers, Art in Between carries value because it draws out hidden connections between similar groups.

“We’re all the same age, and we’re all going through the same things, mostly, with different experiences and emotions about it,” Kitchin says. “The value is seeing that represented on a large scale, as a whole. Not as individuals but representing the community. Even if that community can’t be together.”

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