Features & Columns

Power to the Pupil

Artspiration Showcases Teen Art at San Jose Airport
An emphasis on arts education means students once again can let their creativity flower.

This week I come to you from Terminal B, Gate 18, in the Power Suite. It is here, at Mineta San Jose International Airport, where 26 works of art by local high school students are now on display for those who can make it past security.

The Power Suite is a 2,500-square-foot hold-room of sorts, seating about 100 passengers, a place where domestic and international travelers can plug in their devices at numerous spaces. But now, thanks to "Artspiration," a movement developed by administrators, teachers, parents, artists and community leaders to finally re-introduce the arts into teenagers' educational lives, the Power Suite has come to life via the artwork of 26 high school students from across the valley. The pieces are split between students from the East Side Union High School District and various winners of the 2016 countywide Young Artists Showcase.

The project took a long time to get off the ground, making the opening reception a few weeks ago was that much more animated. The affair took over the entire room, with artists and their families celebrating alongside government employees and school board administrators. Airport honchos and elected officials gave speeches. Reps from Alaska Airlines even showed up with cookies and free T-shirts for all the artists. A few travelers crouching over their laptops, trying to get work done, were simply out of luck. Attendees were constantly looking up at the artwork on the walls and milling about.

The artwork will rotate throughout the year, but the pieces currently in the show include archival prints of paintings, photography and even sculpture. Issues tackled by the artists include environmental pollution, child abuse, dysfunctional families, bullying, social isolation, rampant consumerism, wealth disparity, cultural appropriation and xenophobia.

"The students are broadening their world and their impact," says Jeannine Flores, the visual and performing arts coordinator for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, which coordinated the project. "Before, they'd just be able to show their parents and their teachers what they can do. And now, people from all around the globe are passing by this power suite in the San Jose airport. [The students] can speak to people and inspire people."

For example, one piece by Palo Alto's Kamala Varadarajanof features two photographs of the same family at a kitchen table. In one shot, each person is looking at his or her electronic device, ignoring everyone else. In the other shot, everyone argues with each other. The piece is called, "At a Loss For Words." In her artist statement, Varadarajanof says that in today's world, family members are incommunicado, constantly corresponding with people far away and not spending quality time with the people who are already at their side. "We're so tied up with our electronics that soon we'll be 'at a loss for words,' not because we're surprised—because we'll have forgotten how to talk to someone right next to us," Kamala says.

Photographer Marcus Adrian Laguisma of Monte Vista High School took a photo of a wall covered in black power graffiti, along with the words, "Land of the Free," which is also the title of the piece—but with a question mark at the end.

Even though many of the images are poetic or political, "Green Plant with light held in hands" by B. Carnesecca, of Santa Teresa High School, seemed to encapsulate the most hopeful combo of optimism and environmental stewardship, without even needing words.

Other works deal with video games, deforestation or the experience of being ethnically mixed. All 26 pieces, together, should provide invaluable exposure for the artists.

Of course, the columnist cannot possibly separate himself from subject matter such as this. The four years of art classes I took in high school were the only part of high school I tolerated. In retrospect, an arts and music education from grade school all the way through age 28 is what saved me. Otherwise, I would have turned into a criminal. And I probably wouldn't be alive today. So when I hear about anyone trying to put the arts back into primary and secondary education, I jump for joy. Three cheers for the Power Suite!