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Students Are Learning About Black History And Recycling — Through Art

Teachers at a Missouri art school collaborated with contemporary artist Willie Cole to share some valuable lessons.
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Students Are Learning About Black History And Recycling — Through Art

Instructors at a Missouri school are using art to teach students lessons with real-life impact.

Art teacher Ann Mehr was inspired by Willie Cole's "Man Spirit Mask" triptych and featured the artist in her classes at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School. She said Cole's work is an "important teaching piece" because of its commentary on significant moments in American history: slavery and domestic work provided by black workers during the U.S. segregation era.

"I knew he recycled, and I knew that he did art related to his African-American ancestry, but the more I learned, the more intrigued I was," she said. 

The students studied Cole's work and created their own Cole-inspired art. While learning about black and African history, they also learned about recycling and upcycling. Cole uses many recycled and found objects in his creations.

"I feel it's important to me personally and as a teacher to be thoughtful … the consumer culture doesn't really encourage reducing our consumption or reusing or recycling," Mehr said. 

The students got to meet Cole and work with him on an art installation that will be displayed at the Columbia, Missouri, city hall through Earth Day. Mehr said meeting practicing artists offers another source of inspiration for her students. 

"When you have seen the art of a contemporary artist and then you actually get to meet him, and he is this warm and accessible person … they realize, 'Oh, that could be me. I could grow up to be that,'" Mehr said.