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Students take a hard look at Buffalo’s struggles through the lens of abstract painting

On a Wednesday morning in early April, Rachel Lyons’ first-period art classroom in Buffalo’s Academy for Visual and Performing Arts was a scene of tightly controlled chaos.

In the back corner of the classroom, 10th-graders Kayla Riley and Nicholas Stokes pasted long pieces of string along the main thoroughfares of an 8-foot-tall map of Buffalo. Along the windows looking out on pockmarked Woodlawn Avenue, three ninth-grade girls created an abstract heat map of Buffalo’s highest-poverty neighborhoods using markers and thread.

As Lyons and two other BAVPA art teachers supervised, a pack of cross-legged sophomores glued multicolored pieces of tissue paper over a collage of journal entries written by other students. One student, ninth-grader Jael Whitis, pasted paper snowflakes based on chemicals found at a Lackawanna brownfield onto an abstract background of blues, purples and pinks.

The end product of the students’ four-month project, inspired by the work of Los Angeles-based painter Mark Bradford, will be unveiled Tuesday when Bradford visits the school to give a 7 p.m. talk.

The mural project and Bradford’s visit were initiated by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where Bradford’s exhibition “Shade: Clyfford Still / Mark Bradford” opens Thursday and runs through Oct. 2. As part of the gallery’s efforts to reach more Buffalo students, admission to the gallery in July and August will be free for Erie County’s K-12 students, teachers and one adult guardian.

The finished mural, made up of five multilayered panels exploring aspects of Buffalo’s history and incipient revival, is 8 feet high by 20 feet wide. It contains hours of research into the city’s struggles with poverty and crime, its environmental history and socioeconomic divisions.

To create the panels, art students delved into data about Buffalo’s brownfields and Superfund sites, NFTA bus routes as well as theft, robbery, homicide and gun crime data, Underground Railroad sites and dozens of other sources. Each of the panels contain more than a dozen layers built up and later ground down with rotary sanders, under the supervision of BAVPA art teachers Lyons, Elizabeth Larrabee and Sean Witucki. It’s the same process Bradford uses to create his own sought-after paintings, which now sit in major museum collections and often fetch more than $1 million apiece.

“Our students looked at his work and then developed their own project kind of based on his style,” Lyons said. “There’s a lot of layers and a lot of research that has gone into it.”

Bradford’s meticulous process, according to a 2015 profile in the New Yorker, emerged in part from his work as a hairdresser in south Los Angeles.

“This was when Bradford began to realize that the way he made art and the way he styled women’s hair were related,” Tomkins wrote of Bradford’s late-career epiphany. “The trick was to keep things moving – reach in, try something, and, if that didn’t work, fix it and try something else, and then bring everything together at the end.”

Asked if it was disappointing to put so much work into a layer that eventually would be covered up with something else, 10th-grader Kylie Spink wasn’t concerned.

“I was kind of like that in the beginning,” she said, “but then we see the end result and it looks pretty sweet.”

There are also parallels to Buffalo’s East Side, where BAVPA sits, and Bradford’s own roots. In the same interview, he likened his youth in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles to “growing up in a raggedy Titanic; grand but fallen on hard times.”

Eric Jones, a project coordinator for the Albright-Knox’s public art program, said the project is part of a new commitment from the gallery to work more closely with city students. The gallery’s involvement in this project was only in suggesting it to the school, he said.

“I’ve given them a little bit of information and they just blew up with it,” Jones said. “The fact that they’re making snowflakes out of carbon particles and things that are affecting quality of life for people is just amazing.”

For Jones and the BAVPA art teachers, the project is helping to expand the understanding of art’s potential beyond mere aesthetics and into the realm of social change.

“A project like this really sends the message home that it’s not about just making a pretty picture, it’s about the content and concept behind a piece of art work that, now especially, is the driving force behind why people create art.”

Bradford, whose organization Art + Practice in Los Angeles is directed at fostering conversation between artists and progressive communities, doesn’t necessarily view his art as an overt political statement. But he encourages others to use it that way if they want.

“For me, the subtext is always political,” Bradford wrote in an email. “As a citizen, you have to participate in your community every day. As an artist, you have the opportunity to use contemporary ideas to create an educational platform for other people.”

Bradford described Art + Practice, which he runs with his partner Allan DiCastro and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, as “a physical manifestation of those two sides of my work – the social side and the art side.

“I believe in such projects,” he continued, “and if art students in Buffalo are inspired to try it locally, then that’s great.”

The Albright-Knox exhibition features a series of new paintings by Bradford that respond to the work of abstract expressionist painter Cylfford Still. As part of the show, Bradford selected 20 Still paintings to pair with his own, which are concerned with Still’s aesthetic and symbolic use of black in his paintings.

In addition to his visit to BAVPA, Bradford and Albright-Knox curator Cathleen Chaffee will have a free public conversation at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday in the Albright-Knox auditorium.