Backstage Pass: Jeffery Cornwell’s students dig deep to illustrate coexistence

 
 

Tenth-grader Nicole Pelletier took a photo of her father’s burn scars. An accident on his job as an electrician in the Navy left 99% of his body covered in burns. It’s hard for some people to get past his appearance when they first see him.

To the side of the photo, she wrote words: “Look deep, the ability to love has many faces.” It’s an image of coexistence.

Acceptance is an idea Pelletier and the other students in Jeffery Cornwell’s 10th-grade Booker High School art class understand. It’s in part because Cornwell participates in Embracing Our Differences, an exhibit celebrating diversity and coexistence.

This year, the exhibition features 19 area artists out of a total 39 pieces from around the world — three artists are Cornwell’s students. There were more than 6,000 submissions. The selected work is enlarged to the size of a billboard and will be featured publicly beginning March 30 at Sarasota’s Island Park and the Bradenton Riverwalk.

Cornwell has participated in the program nearly every year since its inception in 2004. Every year he has submitted his students’ artwork, at least one gets accepted into the exhibit.

Cornwell uses the exhibit as an in-class, three-week-long assignment. He takes one week to teach the material by showing them documentaries, poetry slams and old advertisements. It’s an art lesson in conceptualizing ideas.

But, it’s also a life lesson. Cornwell tries to teach them what coexistence means.

“Some of the first things you get from them when you say ‘coexistence’ are race or economics,” he says. “Then you have to dive deeper, ‘What are some other ones?’”

Cornwell has his students observe where they see coexistence or its opposite. By the end of the week, they bring in videos, books and magazines to offer examples. He hopes they tap in and make it personal.
Pelletier is a great example.

“I’ve only seen that once or twice,” he says. “That someone really dug deep to something that was really personal.”

But, even if they don’t get personal, he thinks Embracing Our Differences leaves an impression. What he thinks really counts is when his students see one of their peers expressing how coexistence has affected them on a billboard.

“This is the age of kids that really make a difference because they are trying to figure themselves out,” he says.

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