Breawnna “Bre” Blaesing and a team of her classmates are working on a documentary that will air on PBS. They have followed Mhonpai Lee, a young local Hmong farmer who has struggled to find quality farmland to rent, as more farmers plant corn for ethanol production. Corn-growing depletes the soil of nutrients, Blaesing says. “It is unfortunate the government is endorsing ethanol corn,” said Blaesing, a senior from Minneapolis. “It is not this great alternative resource people think it is.”
New York-based Listen Up! selected the students’ documentary as one of 15 proposals to participate in its Beyond Green project. Listen Up! helps young video producers find resources and promotes youth voices in the mass media. Blaesing began researching the documentary in September. She and fellow students Allison Anderson, Erica Hungerford, Whitney Garner, and Maya Blevins have collaborated on interviews, filming, script writing and production. Listen UP! will help them polish the final product before it airs. Whatever career step the students take next, the documentary will be a powerful entry in their portfolios.
Blaesing and her classmates attend the Perpich Center for Arts Education High School in Golden Valley, which opened in 1989 as the state’s flagship school for arts education. Teacher Karen Munson recalled that in the early years, the school didn’t even have a student handbook. “The only thing written was ‘respect other people and respect their work,’” she said.
Approximately 300 juniors and seniors from around the state attend Perpich. Those with a long commute live in a dorm near the school. Students focus on one of six areas: Theater, dance, literary arts, visual arts, media arts, or music. The students have a lot of space in which to create: The sprawling building includes computer labs for visual and media arts, and separate and generous rooms for printmaking, painting and drawing, music and dance. The school has a theater classroom with performance space, a kiln room, and a photo lab. A large first-floor gallery displays paintings, charcoal drawings, photography, dresses, jewelry, ceramic and more. Artwork lines the walls—even the lockers are painted.
The school is highly desirable for creative young Minnesotans; students compete for admittance. They have to write a personal essay, present a portfolio, and complete an art assignment over a two-week period. During the interview, students also do a spontaneous art exercise. Nicola Carpenter, a visual arts student from Minneapolis, said that for her spontaneous activity, she “had to do something with a pile of stuff on the table. I made a crown. It was really cool.”
The school day runs long—8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.—with academics in the morning and arts in the afternoon. Studio spaces remain open until 9:30, and many students stay late. During a recent visit, eight students were still working on projects in the visual arts computer lab at 4:45 p.m. Dancer Dawn Sageng of Mankato, a dorm student, says she uses the dance studio after hours: “Sometimes, I come in here and just dance mindlessly, just to blow off steam.”
Several students, including Laura Marsolek of Ortonville, said the arts classes in their former high schools were for slackers. Marsolek, a visual artist, wanted more of a challenge. “My art teacher was the art teacher for three other small schools in my area. She didn’t have much time to spend with her students.”
Marsolek said the academics also are more creative, with more room for interpretation. At her old school she would read a book and do fill-in-the-blank worksheets. “The teachers here don’t give you a book,” she said. “They don’t give you a worksheet. They ask your opinion. There are quizzes and tests, but it is more about what we think.”
According to the Perpich Web site, the school is a college preparatory high school that emphasizes experiential learning. During a recent session of Tom Carlson’s Explorations in Writing class, 18 students spent most of the 90-minute period performing original spoken word poetry and critiquing one another’s work. Topics ranged from the pain of homophobia to working at a pizzaria. The class also spent class time journaling, while Indian sitar music played in the background.
In a much more subdued give-and-take, Joao Bichinho’s sociology class of 18 spent time discussing culture, values, and the power of symbols. Bichinho tried to connect the lesson with student careers. Students watched The Persuaders, a Frontline documentary on the advertising industry. “Many of you will be pulled into this industry if you continue to pursue the arts,” said Bichinho. “This is where the jobs are going to be, whether you like it our not.”
But it is not academics that sets Perpich apart—it is the opportunity to learn from practicing artists and work on real world art projects. Perpich graduate and visual artist Megan Rye comes in once a week to critique student work. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design, earned a MFA from the University of Minnesota, and is now represented by New York’s Forum Gallery.
84 students—approximately 30 percent of all students—are specializing in visual art. In Munson’s beginning oil painting class, student Kaelyn Helmer of Minneapolis was working on a copy of Jan Vermeer’s Woman in Blue. She said he has already sold a print—a coffee shop interior—for $120. “It is like getting a jumpstart on a career in the arts,” she said.
At Perpich, even lockers are works of art. (Photo by Scott Russell)
Munson announced to the class that a bistro owner had called and asked for a mural painting. Students could earn a stipend for the work. Students could work for free on projects such as the mural, said Munson later, “but we don’t encourage it. We want them to know that you can make a living doing this.”
The dance program has 25 students. Junior Kirsten Goldenstein said her biggest surprise was the extent of her connections with members of the Twin Cities dance community such as Roxane Wallace and Jeffrey Peterson. “They come to us. We have an assignment where we have to go see their show. You feel they are celebrities, [but] you [come to] realize how normal they are.”
In Mary Harding’s dance class, seniors get the chance to work with nationally-known composer Marc Mellits. For the past three years, Mellits has given the school permission to use his music and he provides full scores. Dance students analyze the music and choreograph dances. Two or three times during the eight-week project, students consult with Mellits—who is based in New York—via Skype videoconference. They show him their work in progress and get his critique.
In a group interview, students said the Mellits project gives them a deeper connection with the music. In their fall show, dancers create movement and pick the music to match. With Mellits, it is the reverse. “We have to analyze the score, get the feeling of the music, and put the movement with it,” said one student.
Students also learn from each other. Media Arts Instructor Nancy Norwood said that one of her favorite projects is the video poem, which crosses disciplines. The literary students write the poems. Norwood’s juniors take the poem and create a video project, using symbolic images to represent it. Then music students put music to the video.
“The idea is not to take the poem literally, but to add meaning to the poem with the images,” said Norwood, who won the 2008 Coca Cola/National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts Distinguished Teacher in the Arts Award.
Students also work together to mount their art shows. It is part of the curriculum, said teacher Bill Jeter. “We try to give students a broad perspective of careers in art,” he said. “Some will be involved in production. Some will be involved in design. And some will be involved in the presentation.” To mount shows, students break into teams. Some take care of set up, preparing the walls and hanging art. Others do graphics, making sure the tags and artist’s statements are in place. Still others work on the reception, including food, music and surveys. The school mounts seven large shows a year, drawing 200 to 400 people each time, Jeter said.
Visual artist Lizzie Olson of Wayzata said students mat all of their artwork. She has served on the set-up and ambiance committees. “We learned how to work well in groups—and artistic groups,” she said. As a result, the young artists “are better at voicing their opinions.”
“There are definitely a lot of opportunities here for a young artist,” said Bre Blaesing.
Scott Russell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison, Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.