Art-fought success

New documentary shows off South Side school's gallery, and its transformative effect

11/21/2012 10:00 PM

Phil Morehart
Contributing Writer

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Art is dense at Dixon. It packs every inch of space.

Bright yellow walls are crowded with paintings, drawings, mosaics, photos and murals. Freestanding sculptures dot the hallways. The work represents artists from around the world, with each piece highlighting, celebrating and commenting upon the African and African-American experience.

Itís a vibrant, powerful collection worthy of any gallery or museum, but itís housed in neither. Dixon is a public elementary school in Chicagoís South Side neighborhood of Chatham.

The Curators of Dixon School, a documentary screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, Nov. 25 and Thursday, Nov. 29, steps inside the hallways and classrooms at Dixon to examine the artís impact on the students, teachers and community. The film is a bright, musical love letter to the school and the women behind its mission, particularly Joan Dameron Crisler, the former principal of Dixon whose vision set the school on its current path.

In extensive interviews, Crisler details Dixonís past and its present trajectory, one that took shape when she and her colleagues began adding artwork to the schoolís walls to inspire students. The objective was clear and simple. Art is vital both to the learning process and to creating an overall positive learning environment.

It must be present in the daily lives of todayís youth. And most importantly, the artwork must be available and interactive. As a result, the work found in Dixon is not behind glass or isolated away from the children. Itís at their level. Itís close. The immediacy creates a contract of trust and respect between the students, Dixonís administrators and the art itself.

As the schoolís new look began to take shape, its attitude changed, as well. Morale grew. Student performance increased. Student creativity flourished. The school became a beacon of hope in both a neighborhood and public school system wracked by troubles. Inspired by Dixonís successes, the model was transplanted to other schools by teachers and administrators who worked for Crisler or studied at Dixon.

As a counterpoint to the Dixon story, the film travels to Alfred D. Kohn School in Roseland, where school principal and Crisler protťgť Carol Briggs attempts to implement the Dixon philosophy. Itís an uphill endeavor fraught with bureaucratic and environmental battles. Regardless, the belief in the Dixon philosophy remains strong.

This notion is the driving force in The Curators of the Dixon School.

The teachers, administrators, students, parents and artists interviewed are headstrong in their belief in the transformative power of art.

Itís an inspiring message.

And at a time when budget cuts are reducing school art programs to dust, itís one that is especially poignant and vital.

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By SoLo V from South Loop
Posted: 11/28/2012 8:12 PM

As an alumna of Dixon School (1970s), I'm proud of what the administrators and students have accomplished, and encourage Chicagoans across the city to go see this documentary.