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MVP Academy offers H-F students new approaches to art

These three masks were created by students in the MVP Academy at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. (Provided photos)

The arts at Homewood-Flossmoor High School moved to a new dimension when 40 students in the Class of 2020 became the first graduates of the Media, Visual and Performing Arts Academy.

With all the great things H-F offers students in the arts — from radio and TV to the fine arts, theater and a music program that includes choir, orchestra and band — some may wonder what else could be added to an arts curriculum. 

MVP is taking those students’ passions and giving them a new view of art — as they know it. Students tend to be exceptional in their areas. MVP gives them the chance to work with students outside their discipline and learn from each other, while collaborating and developing ideas that bring about learning that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

These three masks were created by students in the MVP Academy at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. The Art Department recognized 40 students in the Class of 2020 as the first to graduate from the academy. (Provided photos)

The program is built around two specialty classes: Aesthetics and the Creative Process taught to juniors by teacher Candi Helsel-Wilk and J.R. Willard-Rose, and Collaborative Arts Seminar taught to seniors by Willard-Rose.

Cameron Williams, an incoming senior whose specialty is photography, said MVP was one of his favorite classes. He got to work with students from art, choir and film on one group project.

“We were all together and got to try things that we didn’t normally do. I could get out of my comfort zone, but it’s cool to branch out sometimes and try new things. I really enjoyed doing that,” Williams said.

Helsel-Wilk said her aesthetics class is “a discovery process” from understanding the perspectives of other people and how they look at things to recognizing that the act of making art isn’t perfect.

“At first they’re almost uncomfortable because we’re asking for something that they’re not used to, but once they realize that we all make mistakes and they’re good. I don’t even want to call them mistakes, just do things differently, and that’s the beauty of art. If we did everything the exact same way what a boring world we’d live in,” Helsel-Wilk said.

She gives the example of breaking the class into groups and giving them the same photos of artwork. The groups were given boards and asked to design a gallery space. No two spaces were alike, although they all started with the same art.

Another project involved students creating face masks that represented themselves. 

“We studied different cultures that had masks as part of their history,” Helsel-Wilk said. “It ended up being really beautiful.  A lot of people were surprised because students that weren’t necessarily visual art students had a hand in creating them. 

“It was just another example of ‘I wasn’t a visual arts student but I created something that was appreciated.’ It goes back to that whole idea that it doesn’t mean you’re wrong” in creativity.

Willard-Rose’s Collaborative Arts class gives students the chance to work on projects that involve art. He was pleasantly surprised when students planned a 1950s and ‘60s “prom” for seniors at a care center, and another that took students to a senior residential facility for an arts day with residents.

His students, knowing H-F was going to be designing a new schedule for the coming year, set out to do their own scheduling proposal. They used that as a collaborative project. 

“I’m a firm believer that kids will have more in their projects and come out better when they take the lead in things,” he said. Students were planning two community-wide projects for the spring semester, but they didn’t happen due to COVID-19 scheduling issues.

District 233 former board member Jeanne McInerney-Lubeck worked for several years to get a program that would add to the array of art classes offered at H-F. The board approved MVP in 2016, and shortly after she stepped down from her seat. Willard-Rose and Helsel-Wilk were two of the teachers who, working with board member Jody Scariano, pushed forward to develop the curriculum.

The two-year program serves juniors and seniors, said teacher Jackie Wargo, Art Department chairperson. It’s the only program of its kind in Illinois high schools.

Sophomores submit portfolios for selection into the program. Wargo said MVP is growing from the first group of 40. The second class has 55 students, and the third class — incoming juniors — has about 60 students.

Wargo said MVP allows students “to look at creativity from all the different lenses. It’s a good experience for these kids.”

In retrospect, Willard-Rose says: “I feel like we got it right. Not to say it won’t morph or change. I do believe that those two courses are providing things that our students would not get anywhere else, and the chance to work with other artists in other disciplines and learn about aesthetics and how to be a creative person and work collaboratively and learn how important it is as an artist in a community and how important it is to speak up for injustice. Those are life skills that they will carry with them and I’m very proud of that.” 

Helsel-Wilk said in MVP “there’s a lot of critical thinking and receiving information and approaching problems.”

Overall, she is happy with the program. 

“I would give it an A. I don’t think anything is perfect. We’re doing good work. In five years, it’s going to be even better.”

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