Students honor King through art

Tiana Fahlberg and Rachel Olson-Baer pause to more closely view the art on display Monday in the Washington Street Arts Center. The work, created by local youth, honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo by David Lias)

Members of generations much too young to have any personal memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., honored the civil rights by simply expressing themselves.

The walls inside the Washington Street Arts Center were adorned with the drawings of area children, hand-made pieces of art all designed to honor Dr. King and the positive changes he brought to society decades ago.

The building was also filled with music provided by Bruce and Cindy Miller Gehm.

"I think Martin Luther King Day is that one day out of the year to celebrate that history of the struggle for peace and justice in this country," said Tom Emanuel, a student at the University of South Dakota. "Part of peace and justice is art. We're looking at a new world; we're looking at a world that might be, and I think that's what art does.

"It looks at the art of possibility – those things that aren't but might be," he said. "This event, I think, is important in showing us those possibilities. Especially for the students that provided a lot of the artwork. The teachers in the area have gotten their students to engage with Martin Luther King's message."

Lora Lee Hensel, a member of the Vermillion Area Arts Council board, helped organize Monday's art display. Hensel, who is a teacher and working on her doctorate in curriculum instruction at the University of South Dakota, said she has a strong interest in providing opportunities for area children to experience art.

"That's what brought me to volunteer at the arts center," she said.

All of the art displayed in the center Monday had been created by local children, except for two pieces created by adults. Beresford High School and Vermillion High School students also provided works for the exhibit.

"I went to two of the schools and read them the book Martin's Big Words, – I went to Austin Elementary and St. Agnes, and the teachers then read other picture books that describe Martin Luther King's legacy," Hensel said.

Students from Beresford also participated in the art project.

"I think the greatest thing that does for the children is it really gives them an opportunity to challenge themselves and express their views and understanding of the world through art," she said. "It's different from just making pictures – some of these contributing artists are quite young, in kindergarten and first grade, so I think this is really an important opportunity for them."

Hensel estimated that approximately 100 pieces of art were brought to Vermillion to be displayed Monday.

The request to provide art for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day helped young students gain a keener awareness of the civil rights movement that began in the 1960s," she said.

"They also learn that King's work continues," Hensel said. "There continues to be a need for understanding between people, but to the students, many of the stories of his life are brand new. When children were hearing the stories for the very first time, they would react by saying, 'That is really sad,' or 'Why did people do that?' when hearing of how people of color faced discrimination during King's time.

"Even if the children had been exposed to the stories before, they still remained somewhat new," she said. "The kids were blown away by his ('I've Got A Dream) speech. One of the teachers at the end of my session with the students played a few minutes of his speech, and the kids were amazed by it … King's views are still so relevant."

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