DECATUR – When Stephen Decatur Middle School art teacher Merry Lanker was in college, she took a course in African-American art.
Most of the art history she studied in college was centered on the masters, what Lanker laughingly called “dead white guys” such as Michelangelo and Leonardo daVinci. This class, in contrast, fascinated her because it featured artists and styles she had rarely encountered.
When the district gave teachers a chance to create a course in an area of their own choosing, she proposed a class based on that college class, and her principal gave the OK.
“The kids were excited because I told them it was based on a college class,” Lanker said.
Lanker put names in a basket and kids drew one out for their project. If they wanted to, they could trade.
“We didn't know anything about them,” said Chontez Burtley, whose topic was James A. Porter. “We learned a lot by doing this. It was a different type of art. That type of art wasn't well known, and we get to learn about a different type of art.”
Students took over the role of teacher, said Alyse Moore, and gave presentations on their artist to the class.
“We had to research it on our own and figure it out on our own,” she said. “African-American art doesn't have a lot of light shined on it, so she made a particular class for African-American art.”
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The students concentrated their research on artists connected to the Harlem Renaissance, a time in the 1920s and '30s when Harlem, N.Y., became a cultural center where black authors, poets, artists, photographers, philosophers and musicians congregated to celebrate their talents and heritage.
“This was the first time black artists could tap into their heritage,” Lanker told students Tuesday. “They could accept and use their ethnic identity in their art.”