The superheroes from Kent Transition Center — a few masked and caped, ready to explore all quarters of light and dark — charged into the David D. Hunting YMCA, ready to perform their truth, observations and, well, superpowers.
To the soundtrack of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” they introduced themselves: Wolverine, with the power to heal racism; Black Panther, king and protector from war; Fuego (Fire), with the ability to melt ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) agents; and Super Be Nice, combating bullying. All together, they put the “A” in STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Declarations of their superpowers by some of the KTC CORE students at ArtPrize:Brandon Worthington, superhero Super Destiny: “I have swords for hands. I have wings. I have a laser that helps calm down people who are arguing. I help politicians solve arguments. I have an intercom in my helmet that helps people get in touch with me. I either teleport or fly to a situation. I help anyone who has issues and is arguing too much.”Jessica Stranz, Super Be Nice: “I stop people from bullying! I first give them a warning. If it doesn’t work, I fly on a fluffy unicorn and sprinkle some ‘Be Nice Dust’ with my magic wand. The sprinkle is pink and glittery. Then they learn how to not be a mean person. They turn happy and smile!”
Brian Calderon, Super B: “I’m strong. I can run over water and ice! I can run super-fast like the speed of light. When people are being deported I hear a buzzer in my head and I run and give them a green card. I make the offender an American Citizen!”
Isaiah Krussel, Disaster Management: “I can fly and I have incredible strength! I have a force-field to deter storms. If there is an earthquake, I use my magnetic force-field to stop earthquakes. I use my laser vision to stop hurricanes!”
YouTube multi-dimensional designers Dee Speed and Cody Sielawa flew in from Google’s YouTube headquarters in San Francisco to catch the performance of students with special needs at ArtPrize Nine Education Days. Hometown talent Sielawa, a graduate of Caledonia High School and Kendall College of Art and Design, brought Speed, an influential Googler, to Grand Rapids to gauge and inspire the next generation of artists and designers.
Speed said their visit was part of Google’s interest in doing more development and outreach with younger students.
“We’ve always gone to colleges, but in college you’re pretty set,” Speed said. “So we’re trying to figure out if this age level is better, and it looks like it is.”
The performance artists are from Kent Transition Center’s CORE program, for students who are not yet prepared for independent employment. Kent Transition Center is a program of Kent ISD providing students across the region with academic help and vocational experience. CORE serves students who don’t meet the KTC enrollment requirements.
The CORE cadre at ArtPrize staged a form of self-expression that valued inclusivity, independence, and global perspectives. The students with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities didn’t center their performances on those kinds of struggles, but rather the stuff you see on the nightly news.
The David D. Hunting Y is one of nearly 20 cultural institutions hosting ArtPrize Education Days, which facilitates free arts programming for pre-K–12 school groups.
“ArtPrize wants as many kids as possible to get down to the city and experience this magic,” said Megan Toth, YMCA associate director of grants, who secured an Education Days grant funded by PNC Bank. “We’re excited about that.”
While KTC CORE students performed early morning and midday sessions, a videographer and photographer from the Y documented all aspects of the “out loud” art in hopes of creating a video performance. The students had earlier studied a lesson plan exploring traits of superheroes and supervillains.
“As a class, we identified many problems that are happening in the world today,” said Lori Dulak, program instructor of KTC CORE East. “The students’ ArtPrize performance was based on a solution each student devised in order to eliminate a significant crisis the world faces, by creating or choosing a superhero” and constructing a plan to defeat the problem.
“It was amazing to see the students go beyond themselves and create solutions to predicaments they currently see in their schools, community, country, and world.”
The CORE East students, wearing red T-shirts and their handcrafted posters like a sandwich board, delivered a socially-engaged song with each student leaping out to introduce their superhero character. CORE West students, in blue T-shirts, worked as a league of individual superheroes, performing solo. CORE West instructor Michael Spagnuolo narrated a few.
“I am Grand Rapids Restorer,” declared Joseph Maze, a junior at Grand Rapids Union High School with the superpower to end homelessness.
Art Imitates Life
Through a Kent ISD partnership with the YMCA, KTC operates its CORE programming inside the real working environment of Mary Free Bed and Visser YMCAs. CORE strives to better prepare its special-needs students — from every high school in the county — to live independent adult lives.
Dulak and Spagnuolo incorporated the program’s career readiness competencies into the ArtPrize performance, including eye contact, being on time and ready to work, teamwork and communications.
“Our main focal point is preparing students for full employment,” Spagnuolo said. “So we teach them how to independently work and to use the kind of workplace soft skills that employers look for.”
ArtPrize Education Days gave the students a creative way to practice such competencies.
“I’m liking the way (Spagnuolo) teaches me to be an adult, to prepare for adult life,” Joseph said. “He said, ‘Okay, the key to all the answers is to smile.'”
That job interviewers like to see a smiling person is just one of the lessons Spagnuolo instills: “The intentionally of our program is key to our success – it’s integral and that is the key to our success.”
My Life in Art
Google’s Sielawa applauded the ways the CORE students challenged the model of traditional art.
“The beauty of art and design is that it reflects your essence — you get to come through,” he said. “I feel lucky that my work is something that I make. … You decide your success – and that’s more than good enough, that’s perfect.”
Afterwards, in the downtown Y’s open-air vestibule, the two sets of CORE students shook hands, introduced themselves and snapped selfies with the YouTube superstars. Spagnuolo had them form a circle, hands piled on top of each other, and repeat after him: “Teamwork makes the dream work!”