Schoolkids Brighten Up Cafeteria Tables With a Little Help From Christo

Photos: Philip Ross

It’s not every day that students are encouraged to deface school property. But today in Union Square, schools chancellor Dennis M. Walcott helped a few hundred middle-schoolers unveil brightly colored cafeteria tables that will soon be displayed in city parks.

With the blessing of the parks department, the educational nonprofit Learning through an Expanded Arts Program (LeAP) encouraged 350 students across ten schools to brainstorm issues that affected them on a daily basis. After classroom visits from artists such as Christo and Mark di Suvero, whose iconic “Joie de Vivre” sculpture overlooks Zuccotti Park, the students painted cafeteria tables with imagery and quotes pertaining to bullying, gang violence, gay rights, environmental awareness, and drug use.

At the kickoff for the exhibition, entitled “A View From The Lunchroom: Students Bringing Issues to the Table,” one student opened his speech by quoting Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Alexandra Leff, Deputy Director and creator of LeAp, said the project was meant to give young men and women a stronger voice. “LeAp’s public art program is designed to empower kids to speak out on social issues in their communities,” she said.

On one table, created by students of Mark Twain I.S. 239 in Coney Island, an hourglass representing a race against time separated a lush green landscape from a post-apocalyptic scene complete with an attack robot.

Students at M.S. 255 Salk School of Science in Gramercy Park also addressed environmental issues, as well as concerns over gay rights. “We have a few students who identified with the gay rights table in particular,” said Heather Sporing, an art teacher at Salk. “I think it felt really good to know that they had so many other students that supported them.”

Emma Amos, a NoHo-based artist, had a message for the students at today’s event: “It’s so important that you think about art.” When she asked them to raise their hands if they planned on being artists of any kind, more than half of them did so.

Ms. Amos had earlier invited students to her loft near Union Square. “They’re not used to seeing an artist’s studio, and they were very excited,” she told The Local. “It seems to resonate with them that it starts small, and then you get better.”

The tables shown off at Union Square today will be transported to parks in all five boroughs, where they’ll be on display June through August. The two in Manhattan will be placed in Central Park and in the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Playground on Second Avenue and East 20th Street.