Mastery at the Print Room
The photo exhibit A Collection of Stories, which was up at the Cleveland Print Room May 31-June 14, was divided into 7 titled sections. You could say it was like looking at the subject from seven different angles, in a Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen-Ways-Of-Looking-At-A-Blackbird” kind of way: the content and intention of each section were unified, but distinct, like seven separate exhibits within the exhibit.
A Collection of Stories showed experimentation with images, and the way a range of techniques can carry emotion, or tell a story. There was portraiture, as well as street photography, documenting situations or moments in time. There were images made by combining elements, both digitally using Photoshop as well as through double exposure in the darkroom. There were experiments with color.
Each section was given a title, descriptive of some quality in the photos collected there. A section called “Inside the Mind,” for example, presented portraits that compel the viewer to wonder about the people in those photos: what are they thinking? Or, given the emotion expressed visually in the photo, how would you put it in words?
A section called “Dreaming with Open Eyes” captured the delightful impossibility of dreams through surrealism, created by combining images: a human figure walking precariously on a twig, and then hanging from it. There’s a picture of a girl leaping, juxtaposed to align with a pair of dragonfly wings that leap out large from a pattern of the same that seems to cover the surrounding walls like wallpaper. There’s a lake scene in a coffee cup, with a waterfall of cream making waves.
A section called “The Bridge,” featuring several large prints, finds lines in architecture and juxtaposes them with portrait photos. Some of the resulting combinations are visual puns: a magnificent dome is perched on one portrait subject’s head like a hat. In another, the subject is wearing a chandelier. In some of the others the photographers have created metaphors using architectural lines—like the skeleton of a steel bridge, or a skyline—layered over faces, conveying perhaps the ideas that reside and come out of a person’s mind. In each case the “bridge” is the connection from one element to the other that makes the combined photos work as one: the shape that an architectural dome has in common with a hat.
One thing that you would not think about unless you had read the background information on A Collection of Stories is that all the work here is done by students. The photos themselves were created by high school students in the Teen Institute Arts Mastery Program at the Cleveland Print Room. There are about 35 students in that program, most of them from Cleveland Municipal School District schools.
The term “Arts Mastery” refers to a collection of arts programs around the city, supported since 2016 by the Cleveland Foundation, with the intent of making available top quality arts education in all Cleveland neighborhoods. In addition to Cleveland Print Room’s Teen Institute photography program, other programs currently on offer are: the Cleveland Museum of Art / Cleveland Public Library curatorial mastery program; Brick City Theatre, at Cleveland Public Theatre; a vocal arts program and a dance program at Tri-C Creative Arts Academy; The Rainey Institute’s El Sistema program for orchestral music; the classical guitar program at the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society; and poetry, creative writing, and performance offered at both Twelve Literary Arts, and Sisterhood. These are relatively new programs, and odds are you’ll be hearing a lot more about them. The goal, in the next 3-5 years, is to make arts mastery programs to 5000 students.
Meanwhile, continuing the Wallace Stevens comparison with the Print Room’s A Collection of Stories, the curator for the show was actually 13 people. More specifically, it was 13 of those Mastery students who took a class within the program, focused on curation. During the year they made studio visits, took a trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art where they took a tour guided by a curator from another museum, and developed skills relevant to making curatorial decisions and creating exhibits that cohere. Anyone who has co-curated anything can imagine that working on a single exhibit among thirteen curators could be a maddening process. Perhaps it was. But the results certainly show that both the photographers and curators have been successful at executing their ideas.
Cleveland Print Room hopes to double participation in its photo mastery program for the 2019-2020 school year. They’re taking applications now.