East Side Community High School Students Turn Exile Into Art

Kelsey Kudak and Leigh Klonsky
IMG_9908Kelsey Kudak More than 800 tiles like this will be hung in
the school’s gallery

“Community” is one word East Side Community High School takes seriously, and not just because it’s a part of its name.

After structural damages shut down their building on East 12th Street in September, students and administrators began to learn that although a community is not confined to a central location, it certainly makes a difference.

When art teachers Leigh Klonsky and Desiree Borrero were finally allowed to return to the building after four months, they decided to curate an all-school art show that would allow students to express their experiences about the unexpected exile. The result — a collection of more than 800 tiles created by students, family members, and staff — will be displayed for sale in the school’s art gallery starting tomorrow.
To generate dialogue based on the themes of “home” and “community,” Ms. Klonsky and Ms. Borrero asked participants questions like, “What does home, our community, the neighborhood, or the Lower East Side look like to you?” and “Is there a specific person or place in our East Side Community that makes it home for you?”

IMG_9917 copyKelsey Kudak Leigh Klonsky and Lonnie Hancock hold their tiles.

Students then set to work visualizing colors and images that brought their feelings to life. Lonnie Hancock, a ninth grader who helped organize the project, created a tile with black stripes that represented how imprisoned he felt in a larger school. He chose a blue background because it was the color that made him think of East Side.

Because of late enrollment, the freshman spent his first days as an East Side Community High School student at Norman Thomas High School in Midtown South (middle schoolers were moved to Alfred E. Smith in Chinatown). He said he felt like all odds were against him when he started his school year in a 10-story building with metal detectors and a multitude of security guards.

“The settings [at Norman Thomas] were drastic,” said the 14-year-old. “Here, the teachers care about the students and the students care about the teachers, you know? But there’s no kind of relationship at Norman Thomas. You couldn’t do much of anything other than learn and go home.”

IMG_1891Kelsey Kudak Principal Mark Federman (front) and a
parent work on their tiles.

East Side is a small school where the approximately 600 students refer to their “advisors” — the school’s term for teachers — by their first names. After their children were displaced, parents expressed concern about Norman Thomas’s strict rules against cell phones and eating lunch outside the school building.

Mr. Hancock felt relieved upon his return to East Side. “Honestly, it sounds really cheesy, but there’s a sense of community here,” he said. “If there’s one thing that came from Norman Thomas, it’s that it brought people together.”

The school’s principal, Mark Federman, also participated in the project along with staffers, parents, and family members who painted side by side. He said the art show — the first to include some 70 percent of students who hadn’t previously been featured in the school’s twice yearly shows — was symbolic of the community’s resilience. “I think it was therapeutic and special for a lot of people,” he said. “Our relocation seems like a distant bad dream now, so it’s nice to take a moment to see how we’ve survived it as a community.”

“Homecoming, A Community Art Show” opens Wednesday, April 24, and runs through May 10 at the Loisaida Art Gallery of East Side Community High School. An opening reception will take place on Wednesday April 24 from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public. A selection from the exhibition will also be available online at www.loisaidaartgallery.org.