WIUM Tristates Public Radio

The Art of Touching Lives

Dec 20, 2016

Marc Nelson's goal is to teach his students at Central Junior High School in Kewanee that there is more to art than paintings hanging from a gallery wall.

"It can actually be a piece of communication that you can share with others," Nelson said. 

The students are learning that lesson by creating images of the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria -- artwork that is shared on Twitter via the hashtag  #StandWithAleppo.

Eighth grade student Chloe Shaw said, "Artwork shows a visual of what's happening. It shows people that this is what's happening."

Classmate Nick Woods added, "I know that kids are getting bombed every day and we need to care."

Thanks to social media, people in the Middle East know young people in America's Midwest care about them. Among those seeing the students' work are the Syria Civil Defense workers known as the White Helmets, who are volunteer rescue workers trying to help civilians caught in the middle of the conflict.

Nelson said he originally tweeted some of his own paintings of the crisis.  Then he started sharing some of his students' work to let the people of Aleppo know that young people care about them.

"So I put it on Twitter, shared it with people in Syria, and it has been retweeted and people have said, ' Bless these children. They actually care,'" Nelson said.

Nelson weaves a bit of history and social studies into the art classes he teaches. Each class period begins with a bit of reading. 

Marc Nelson says graphic novels are key teaching tools for his art classes.
Credit Rich Egger

"This is the key right here.  These are graphic novels," said Nelson, pointing to copies of the graphic novel memoir March about congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, and Maus, Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust.  

"Maus has been the key for these students to understand anything about what's going on in Syria. Unfortunately the parallels are there -- refugees, buildings crumbling, exterminations." 

Nelson’s own artwork is influenced by wars. As a child he was moved by World War I photographs in books owned by his grandfather. Later he was captivated by daguerreotypes in the Ken Burns television documentary, The Civil War.

March Nelson talks about a range of topics to his middle school students.
Credit Rich Egger

“I had such a visceral reaction to watching that with my dad and mom.  I got into those photographs because of the haunting kind of otherworldly quality of them. They almost captured time and memory in their images,” he said.

Nelson earned a B.A. in Fine Arts from Augustana College and an Art Education Teaching Certificate from Western Illinois University.  He said teachers always encouraged him to follow his vision, and now he’s doing the same for his students.  He tells them that artists are into literature, history, science, and generally learning about the world around them.  They then use their minds and hands to channel what they’ve learned.

And now his students are getting firsthand experience in how the lessons they’ve learned can be turned into art that touches the lives of people struggling to survive a crisis on the other side of the globe.

(Thanks to TSPR's Emily Boyer for assistance with this story)