As a young student, Stacy Utley didn’t see himself in the artists he was studying. Utley is Black, and the artists his teachers focused on were predominantly European and White.
Now, as a faculty member at Charlotte Country Day School, Utley and fellow teacher Dwayne Wilson are expanding on the way students learn about and see art. Rather than talking about artists of color for only one month out of the year, Utley and Dwayne are expanding on Country Day’s already rich curricula and have introduced a more complex understanding of art history and expression, incorporating artists of color and female artists throughout the curriculum.
“When your art classroom is all male European artists, which is what we were taught, you wonder, ‘Where do I fit?’ You wonder if you can be an artist,” said Utley, a visual arts teacher in the Upper School.
Shortly after arriving at Country Day’s Middle School campus nine years ago, Dwayne Wilson expanded on the current works and introduced artists such as Mexican muralist Diego Rivera; Maya Lin, a Chinese-American architect and sculptor; and Jean-Michel Basquiat, an American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. Wilson discusses topics such as appropriation and how people of color have contributed to the development and success of the nation.
“What has changed the most from then to now is our outlook on how the arts can educate the students through multiculturalism,” said Wilson, a visual arts teacher who also serves as assistant varsity track & field coach and assistant middle school track & field coach.
Embracing current events
Wilson’s classroom is filled with portraits of the late actor Chadwick Boseman, which Wilson drew in charcoal on cardboard. He also displays portraits of current events that allow him to teach on multiculturalism without shying away from the topic.
In the Upper School, Utley’s students are working on a collective piece that addresses life during quarantine. Students also are diving into issues such as homelessness and the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We are using art to address social issues, to ask kids, ‘What are you thinking about?’ ” Utley said. “Students may not know how to start a conversation, bring it up, or process it. We are using art to engage them and let them feel comfortable in having that conversation. We’re at a very interesting time.”
One focus of the art program is contemporary art and issues looking back as far as the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and intellectual movement centered in Harlem during the 1920s.
Head of School Mark Reed said the school believes that students benefit from an education that affirms respect and inclusivity as core values. The school says it considers developing a diverse student body a top priority when making admissions decisions.
For the 2020–21 school year, 27% of newly enrolled students identify as students of color. The school also has been working to increase diversity within its faculty. Currently, 15% of the faculty are people of color, including important leadership roles such as Head of School, Director of Diversity Planning, Athletic Director, Curriculum Director, Deans, and Alumni Director.
“We aspire to be a school community that not only values the principles of equity, inclusivity, and justice, but also a community that puts principles to practice on a daily basis,” Reed said. “We continue to grow together and learn from each other.”
Davidson College graduate Makayla Binter is spending the year at Country Day as a Hearst Teaching Fellow. The biology and studio art dual major is enjoying her interactions with the art students.
“I think it’s revolutionary,” Binter said of Country Day’s fine arts program. “It’s a rebuilding, a restructuring or a reformatting of what exists and applying it in a more inclusive process.”
She added that social justice means different things for different people.
“It’s broad. And it’s really cool students have been given the space to enter those conversations with a medium and art form they are comfortable with,” she said. “It’s important to share your part of the narrative because we are all sharing this experience together.”
Wilson and Utley hope to inspire other secondary schools and colleges to embrace more multiculturalism in their curriculum. Last year, Wilson and Utley gave a presentation about their inclusive approach to teaching art at the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference. They hope to share their approach with more schools and universities nationally and encourage faculty members in other disciplines, such as history and math, to take a broader view in their teaching.
Into the community
Charlotte Country Day art students also enjoy a variety of field trips. Past trips focused on traditional institutions, such as the Mint Museum and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. In 2018, Wilson came up with the idea of adding what he calls a multicultural public art tour, where students could see murals and sculptures in Charlotte neighborhoods. Students hopped on the Lynx rail line and toured sites in NoDa and SouthEnd, prompting discussion about gentrification along the way.
Utley and Wilson say this work at Country Day is geared toward helping all students grow into well-informed, global citizens.
“It’s about having students realize their ability to partake in something bigger than themselves,” Wilson said.
Written by: Kerry Hall Singe for GlennOaks Media