Leading from Behind: Seven students honor seven leaders through art projects

The Van Aken District’s Market Hall has found a unique way to celebrate Black History Month—with a high school student art show highlighting seven Black women who have made a significant contribution to the country’s progress and culture.

"There are many African American women in history who have broken ceilings and opened doors for others in their line of work—some of them we know well, and some are lesser known," says Megan O'Donnell, Van Aken District's marketing and events manager. "Van Aken District is highlighting seven of these historical women, through the eyes of seven student artists, as a celebration the Black History Month.

The exhibit “Leading from Behind” is a partnership between the District and Shaker African American Mothers Support (SAMS). SAMS worked with two teachers in the Shaker Heights High School art department to suggest students who might be interested in the project. The group ultimately ended up with a mix of ninth and 12th graders who wanted to participate.

The students each chose a Black woman who may be lesser-known in history to honor through their art—displayed on doors to represent both the doors opened by these women and the doors they were also kept behind.

“They were given a list of Black women that have made a significant difference in history and asked to choose someone to feature after reading short bios,” says Kim Harris with SAMS. “Students were encouraged to find out more about the person and decide how they wanted to portray them in their portraits.”

The seven students chosen whose projects are featured are Abigail Walicke, Aaliyah Bell, Annabel Coxon, Aubrey Welchans, Ernie Coffman, Kimora Langford, and Damion Cunningham.

Each door has a portrait of a featured woman in history, along with a short statement of what that individual did to drive change. The seven women in the exhibit are author Zora Neale Hurston; artist Elizabeth Catlett; former U.S. surgeon general Joycelyn Elders; pilot Bessie Coleman; Civil Rights activist JoAnn Robinson; NASA astronaut Mae Jemison; and zoologist Roger Arliner Young.

“These Seven women made a significant impact and deserve to be noticed but they may have made their impact without becoming a well-known person of history,” explains O’Donnell. “[These] women helped to shape their fields and led the way for so many.”

Retired art teacher Andre Taylor served as advisor to the students and met with them weekly as the students worked independently on their projects from home. Taylor assisted with showing the students various painting techniques.

Davis says SAMS provided the 48-inch tall by 22-inch wide plywood for the works, along with prime acrylic colors, brushes, and paint. Students were given three weeks to work. They had to create their own non-primary colors and create all of their own designs, sketches, and paintings.

Artist statements and poems describing each subject’s accomplishments accompany the portraits. Van Aken District agreed to display the works during the month of February, in honor of Black History Month. The exhibit comes down at the end of the month, on Sunday, Feb. 28.

O’Donnell says it was the perfect way to celebrate the community atmosphere created in the District. “Community is everything to us,” she says. “We built the Van Aken District for everyone to gather and we strive to create experiences that are not only inclusive to all, but also inviting to everyone. Partnerships like the one we have with SAMS are so important to us—it’s a direct way for us to connect with and support our neighbors.”

Below of the statements and works from three of the participating artists.

Aaliyah Aaliyah, 12th grade
My portrait is about Willa Brown, someone I never heard of before doing this project. I decided to do a portrait on her because I always found flying interesting, and I was drawn to how she dedicated her life to her passion and helping others. Willa was the first black woman to earn both a commercial license and pilot license in the years 1938 and 1939. After getting both of her licenses, she started a private pilot training academy with Cornelius Coffey, the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which was owned and operated by African Americans. Willa trained many black pilots for the U.S army air corps, and many of her students went on to become part of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. I feel like we’re a bitWilla Brown, the first black woman to earn both a commercial license and pilot license in the years 1938 and 1939. similar, we’re very passionate about a specific thing, and both of our lives revolve around that passion. In my portrait, I went for a more cartoonish style to portray the carefree feeling of flying that Willa and other pilots must have felt. I also made sure to include other planes in the background to allude to how Willa taught others how to fly. Willa Beatrice Brown was an American aviator, teacher, and civil rights activist. She was the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license in the United States, first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol, and first woman in the U.S. to have both a pilot's license and an aircraft mechanic's license.

AnnabelAnnabel, 9th Grade
On my door I painted a portrait of Jo Ann Robinson; an African American college professor, English teacher, and Civil Rights activist who led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. When Robinson sat in the empty “whites only” section of a bus in 1949, she was verbally assaulted by the bus driver, and fled the bus fearing physical violence. After several meetings with city officials failed to make progress towards bus desegregation, Robinson began her push for a bus boycott, six years prior to the arrest of Rosa Parks. The arrest of Parks on December 1, 1955 for refusing to go to the back of the bus was the catalyst Robinson had been waiting for. Overnight, with the help of a colleague and two students, she made over 50,000 flyers to distribute, encouraging a bus boycott on December 5. The boycott was successful, drew the attention of Martin Luther King Jr., and continued for roughly a year. It ended in a federal court order desegregating bus seating, established King as an important national figure, and launched an era of peaceful civil rights activism.Jo Ann Robinson; an African American college professor, English teacher, and civil rights activist who led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Robinson joined the board of King’s Montgomery Improvement Association, and because of her activism was arrested many times and targeted with violence by local policemen. I chose to feature her on my door because she quietly organized mass action and risked her life to protest an unjust system, and her bravery hasn’t been recognized as much as others involved in the Civil Rights Movement. The portrait I painted of Robinson is based on the picture at right - a mug shot with a booking number - which seems to be the most famous picture of her found online. While this picture is only available in black and white, I imagine her in brighter color, full of life. The portrait includes a zentangle incorporating her booking number to symbolize the sacrifice that she made, and a bus to highlight the boycott that started a national movement. Zentangle brings different designs together into a unified image, just like Robinson brought people together to make an impact against injustice.

Kimora LangfordKimora Langford
I chose Roger Arliner Young because she inspires me as a woman who was able to overcome many obstacles in her life and achieve many great things such as becoming the first African American woman to receive her doctorate degree in zoology and having her scientific research articles published. While I don't haveRoger Arliner Young, the first African American woman to receive her doctorate degree in zoology. any similarities directly tied to her being a zoologist and marine biologist, her perseverance and will to overcome inspires me. I focused my piece on the fact that she is a marine biologist because that has always been of interest to me. I drew Young underwater with sea animals to depict marine life. I chose bright colors in the background to make the piece more vivid and have a fun feel to it. Instead of making it realistic, I used harsh shadows and bright highlights to create an animated feel to my artwork.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.