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Monster art show explores racism and self-image

NIAGARA FALLS – Monster. The word evokes disturbing images from fairy tales and science fiction to real life killers.

But what if the scary name is used to describe you?

Twelve young men of color at Gaskill Prep Middle School have been exploring the images of racism, the prejudice they face in society and their own self-image for an art show that will be on view from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday in the 24 Below Art Gallery, 435 Third St.

The opening of the show will feature spoken word poetry and excerpts from the book “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers, which the students read and discussed.

The program is part of the Niagara County Community College Liberty Partnership Program, a discussion–based literacy group and drop out prevention program, that aims to teach young people to think beyond the book and engages them in discussions that look at their own lives and current events.

Krista Ehasz, the former part-time program administrator, said the program didn’t start out as an art show.

“We had a morning reading group during our study hall,” she said. “We were looking for ways that they could express themselves. Without knowing it they were doing philosophy in class.”

“Monster,” a 1999 young-adult novel, depicts an African-American teenager on trial for felony murder in New York State. The boy, who has been labeled in court as a “monster,” details what he has learned about himself in prison, as well as his fellow inmates, the court system and the crime that brought him to stand trial.

Ehasz said the students set up their classroom as a mock courtroom and explored questions about truth and justice.

Her students brought their own experiences and run-ins with law enforcement to the classroom discussion.

“One of the boys described being followed home by police. He was doing nothing. He said, ‘(Police) thought I was a suspect. They thought I was suspicious,’” said Ehasz. “Giving them a place to air this really affected me and I wanted to explore it further.”

She said that comment led to a larger discussion of the way men of color are viewed and assumptions people make.

“It’s kind of empowering questioning things,” Ehasz said.

She said the boys took an excerpt from the book, where the boy said he thought the word “monster” was tattooed on his forehead because that’s how people viewed him on trial, whether he was guilty or not. Her students then did their own self-portraits that looked at how other people may view them versus how they view themselves.

The students discussed whether the art show should be positive or dark.

“I think by the nature of its content there is some darkness to it, but the positivity comes in being able to express something they may not usually be able to talk about, whether it’s frustration, anger, sadness, whatever,” Ehasz said.

At the show, some of the student artists also will explain their interpretations and connections with other artists and writers. They’ll talk about the 1920s works of Langston Hughes as well as music by hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur, who died after being shot in 1996. Video of the Michael Brown shooting and protests in Ferguson, Mo., were part of the student discussion.

“I think this will move them in a positive direction and it is positive just to have this forum to talk about it and share it with the community. Sometimes they think this is something they have to hide,” said Ehasz.

Ehasz had moved on to an unrelated job, but volunteered her services to continue her work with the students. She said she had been working with the seventh- and eighth-grade students since they were in the sixth grade. She said she wanted to make sure the students had a forum to show their art. Current program administrators who are working with the students are: April DuBois, Emily Mazur and Michael Radosta.

The dropout-prevention program is funded by the state Education Department and sponsored by Liberty Partnership. The current program director is Jaime Reid.