Announcing the I AM ART Project: An Interview with Tierra Rich and Donnell Powell

Over a decade ago, Painted Bride launched an initiative called Rock the Pen!, a spoken word workshop for middle school and high school students to understand the power creative writing has to influence other academic disciplines, and their lives.

Initially, Rock the Pen! was a monthly program that brought students from all over the city to the Bride. Over time, however, the program’s model evolved, adapting to the needs and challenges of Philadelphia’s schools. Last year, Rock the Pen! focused its efforts solely on Memphis Street Academy Charter School, where it will return this fall—but in the next stage of its evolution:

Introducing, the I AM ART Project.

Project facilitators Tierra Rich and Donnell Powell met as high school Juniors in D.C. and have remained friends since. Here, the pair discusses the rebrand, their unique roles, and where the project is headed this school year.

Tell us about yourselves. What interests you as an artist?

Tierra Rich: My mission is to talk about community and build it. I use creative writing to show students that they have a voice in the world and in their surrounding community. Outside of teaching, I do a lot of consulting and event planning for a variety of different artists. My personal writing is usually monologue-based and performative.  

Donnell Powell: I think of myself more as a curator than an artist. I like to get people together to make things happen, and I’m good at fostering community among people of different backgrounds. A lot of my work is concerned with studying and creating spaces through installation. I think lot about what lies inside of a community, and what things I can borrow from existing communities to use in my art. I like the idea of creating new worlds out of existing worlds.

So, what the story behind rebranding Rock the Pen! to the I AM ART Project?

DP: Rock the Pen! was all about creative writing. We decided it was better to open the program up and encompass a wider range of art forms. Tierra invited me onto the project so we could students could explore the possibility to more hands-on or visual work.

Tierra and Donnell pose with their students from Memphis Street Charter School.

TR:  Right. Everyone has that creative bone in their body. We wanted to open the door and allow students to discover their inner artists in more ways. The name I AM ART reflects that change, and the idea that we are our own greatest creation.

You spent this past school year in residency at Memphis Street Charter School. What were your workshops like?

TR: We asked the students to explore the communities around them, to think outside themselves. We would play a variety of music—from salsa or jazz—to set the ambiance, and then we would begin with our warm ups.

DP: Our warm ups explored what a safe space was. During one warm up, we asked the students to use their bodies to illustrate their communities. It was tough for some students at first because they didn’t know to interpret that prompt, but once I told them that there were no rules—that they could do whatever they felt—the manifestations that came from it were awesome.

TR: That question—what does a safe space look like to you?—became an important theme in our class. We spent the majority of our session doing journals and collaging, and the kids became specifically interested in the bathroom stall as a kind of safe space. That’s how we came up with the “When Bathroom Stalls Become Hiding Places and Prayer Temples” concept that we later presented at Pop-up Play.

How did you guys wind up working with Pop-up Play?

“When Bathroom Stalls become Hiding Places and Prayer Temples,” pictured from Pop-up Play 2015.

TR:  I met Pop-up Play at an event and told them about our creative process, how we were making journals. Pop up play is an organization that brings students together to explore ideas of community building through play, so they were very interested in what we were doing and invited us to participate.  

By the time we were ready to start building the bathroom stall, we had collected enough pieces throughout the workshops to put in and on the bathroom stall and the idea was able to manifest.

Donnell, Tierra, and their students enjoying themselves at Pop up Play.

DR:  We made bathroom stall installation on the spot. It was like art in the moment. Our Memphis Street students did a great job of engaging the kids at Pop-up Play, asking questions like What does a safe space mean to you? or What do you see besides yourself when you look in the mirror. People we very receptive to it. It was great to have students lead those challenging but much-need conversations.

What excites you most about this kind of work? What does success with this project look like to you?

DP: I want the students to leave feeling like they helped build a community. And the thing that excites me most about doing this kind of work is the shared value. I’m always inspired by students, but when I can tell that we are inspiring one another, it’s a great feeling.

TR: First, I want students to be able to examine the media they take in every day and how it affects them. Second, I want students to feel the importance of art and art education, and feel empowered by it. It’s really exciting for me when people do things they’ve never done before—when art brings someone out of their shell.

Interested in bringing the I AM ART Project to your school? Contact lisa@paintedbride.org for more information.

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