Gift of Art: ‘It’s About Your Character’

Six children stand arm-in-arm, their multicolored faces smiling confidently before an American flag in an image of diversity within unity. Thanks to Paul Collins and an anonymous donor, Rockford High School students will see it every day.

The well-known Grand Rapids artist’s powerful painting, titled “We the Children,” was purchased and given to the school by a Rockford area business. Collins recently delivered the large artwork to the school, where officials plan to place it prominently. He hopes students take its message to heart as they pass by.

“It’s not about color, it’s about your character,” said Collins, whose rich, realistic paintings hang in galleries and museums worldwide. “I talk to kids all the time, and I always let them know: Please stop judging people by their religion and by their color. You have to judge them by what they do.”

Although Collins has placed reproductions of the painting in some 15 other schools, including East Grand Rapids Middle School, Rockford got the original. It measures 8 feet wide by 5 feet, 5 inches high. He unveiled it with his nieces, Rockford High students Caitlyn and Nicole Sowa.

Having them take part in the unveiling was all Collins asked of the school when he offered to donate the painting, said assistant principal Eric Cavalli. When he asked Collins if the school would need to raise funds to purchase it, Cavalli recalled, “He said ‘Nope, all you need to do is say yes.’”  Collins shares a warm moment with niece Caitlyn Sowa

“It’s got a message of unity, a message of patriotism. It’s kid-centered,” Cavalli said. “It’s certainly appropriate for a school environment. The fact it was the original blew my socks off.”

School Art Program Impresses the Artist  

Art teacher Cyndi Len said the piece will be valuable for students both because of its message and its creator.

“It’s wonderful for the kids to see work by an original artist that is from our own community, and to understand this is someone who does this for a living,” Len said. “It’s just beautiful, and has such strong meaning that I think every kid can relate to it.”

Prior to the unveiling, Len and other teachers took Collins on a quick tour of the school’s art rooms.  He admired a student-created ceramic mural in the library, another mural in the hallway and the variety of artistic styles on display in the art rooms.

“You do a better job than some of the art schools do,” Collins told the teachers. “You’re not emphasizing any particular kind of art. You’re open to anything. I’m really, really impressed to find this out in Rockford.”

After surveying teacher Lori Larson’s clothing-construction room, he said, “Your kids are really fortunate. When they come out of here they’ll have a wider vision, an open mind.”

He related his own experience as a student at Ottawa Hills High School, saying he wanted to be a quarterback until a teacher encouraged him to pursue art. “Teachers can have such an impact on kids,” he said.

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Paul Collins’ Art Work

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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